11/27/2012 05:32 EST | Updated 01/27/2013 05:12 EST

How I'm Preparing for the World's Most Prestigious Culinary Competition

The Bocuse d'Or, named after legendary chef Paul Bocuse, is the world's most prestigious culinary competition. It takes place in Lyon, France every two years. Approximately 60 countries try to qualify to be among the 24 finalists competing for the golden trophy.

For the 2013 competition, the chefs are dealing with rule changes from previous years and waiting to hear what species of fish they will be cooking on January 29th and 30th.

Vincent Parkinson is the Chef de Mission for Bocuse d'Or Canada. In addition to his Bocuse d'Or Canada duties, Parkinson is the Executive Chef at The Calgary Golf and Country Club.

These are anxious days for Alex Chen. Waiting.

Any day now Canada's chef for the Bocuse d'Or will get the email announcing the type of fish he will be cooking in the competition. The wait is unnerving, and while Chen is no stranger to stress, this anxiety, well, this is different.

The entire Canadian team is very aware that success in January depends on how Chen, and indeed the other competing chefs respond to the pressure leading up to, and during the 5.5 hour competition. Right now he just wants to be in the kitchen. He wants to be cooking. He wants to be creating, comfortable in his "world."

But this is what makes this competition so unique; chefs are taken out of their comfort zone and thrust into the crazy spectacle that is the Bocuse d'Or. We all know the next 66 days will be anything but comfortable as Chen pushes to finalize his entry. It will be a blur, we know this and we're ready. The Canadian team of jury member Robert Sulatycky, coach Dan Olson, myself and the two competing chefs, Alex Chen and commis Jack Beers, have considered over and over again what fish we would like to see used and what is a likely choice and from that worked on ideas, flavours and visual concepts which would provide maximum impact to the jury.

The competitors must present a meat dish and a fish dish to the 24 member jury, 14 portions of each, both with 3 appropriate garnishes. We are months into creating the meat dish (Irish grass-fed beef tenderloin, cheeks, oxtail and feather-blade) developing recipes since June and as prepared as we can be at this point with the fish dish, not knowing what it is.

The dishes must be flawlessly executed. The perfect balance of stunning visual presentation, amazing taste and complementary flavours that also demonstrates exquisite creativity; all this and still practical enough to be completed in a small kitchen against the clock, and oh yes, in front of thousands of screaming fanatical supporters.

It's a rigorous ordeal and the demands extreme -- creatively, mentally, physically and financially, prompting many chefs to put their careers on hold and focus exclusively on perfecting their dishes. This commitment comes at a cost. Chen for example, gave up the position of Executive Chef at the legendary Beverly Hills Hotel and Bungalows, realising he could not do both with the intensity he expects of himself.

Adding to the stress of competing in the world's greatest culinary competition are several rules changes, implemented to introduce spontaneity, to level the playing field and to eliminate the "robotic work" of some of the heavily-funded teams who were able to practice full-time for over a year.

We have all attended the competition several times over the years (Sulatycky and Olson know the competition intimately having represented Canada in 1999) using each trip as an opportunity to better plan for the upcoming contest and were comfortable with the process but the rule changes mean it's all new again. We like the changes, happy with them really, but they do add unknowns that dictate how we approach the event.

We've discussed ad nauseam the most significant change: two of the three required garnishes for the fish will be produced from a mystery basket of ingredients given to the chefs on the eve of the competition. They will then have 1.5 hours to view the ingredients and write the recipes. Previously the chefs have always entered the kitchen knowing exactly what they will be cooking and have rehearsed for months. We agree this is an intriguing amendment. The chefs would have established and practiced the cooking of the fish before they arrive in Lyon, meaning the garnishes designed on the fly must complement the fish and fit into the presentation. Since there is no time to practice these garnishes this could be the downfall for some competitors.

Secondly, only the beef will be presented on the silver platters which have defined the competition since its inception in 1987. Now the fish will be served by the chefs directly onto individual plates, which is more in line with contemporary restaurant service. This format was used for the first time successfully in January 2012 at the U.S. selections. The silver platters are designed and fabricated by each team specifically for the competition and cost tens of thousands of dollars -- frequently the largest expense on a team's budget. Because of that we practice on aluminium duplicates, so as not to damage the surface of the competition platters.

Finally, the type of meat and fish for the contest have been announced later than in the past, giving all the chefs the same amount of limited time to practice. Previously the proteins were announced up to two years in advance of the competition, a distinct advantage to the teams who selected their candidate that far ahead.

Looking ahead to the competition we expect the Scandinavian countries to be strong as they have been in the past and we think that the US team led by Richard Rosendale will be a team to watch.

In the meantime it's back to the kitchen practice and wait....