by Al Mancini | Photo by Deborah Jones
On Dec. 17, 2015, several teams of aspiring young chefs gathered in a ballroom in The Venetian to show off their finest chops in front of a small but energetic crowd. By the end of a grueling day in a makeshift kitchen, chef Mathew Peters of Thomas Keller’s New York institution Per Se and his commis, Harrison Turone, had emerged victorious.
The duo had earned the honor of representing the United States in the prestigious Bocuse d’Or held in Lyon, France, a competition named after legendary French chef Paul Bocuse that’s been hailed as the Olympics of food. And Peters, basking in the glow of his fresh victory, was not humbled by the task ahead. Despite the fact that America had never won the competition, when asked about the next step, he unabashedly promised, “We’re going to represent (the U.S.) with a gold (medal).”
Thirteen months later, Peters and Turone made good on that promise. The table had been set for their performance for a while.
“USA had the momentum with chef Phil Tessier bringing us to the podium in 2015, winning silver,” said Keller, who is president of the Ment’or foundation that supports the American team.
“We went into the competition with a certain level of expectation, not only from ourselves and our supporters, but Monsieur Bocuse himself. Chef Paul Bocuse’s expectation to see us win gold was absolutely top of mind for the team and all of us as we traveled to Lyon this year.”
“For us, it was like gold or nothing,” Peters said. “So the pressure for us was extremely high.”
The pair had some help in their preparation. Among the dozen or so people lending them a hand, Keller was joined by famed chef Daniel Boulud, and Tessier provided insight into exactly what they would face in France. But there would be only the two of them doing the cooking and plating in France. And since competition rules demanded the commis be no older than 22 at the time of the competition, Turone’s experience was limited.
The training, which lasted a full year, took place primarily in Yountville, California. The Napa County town is the home of Keller’s flagship and Per Se’s sister restaurant, The French Laundry.
“A lot of people don’t understand what you need a whole year for,” said Peters. “But we built a kitchen. So that takes time. Being able to set yourselves up and reorganize everything so it’s in an area where you feel comfortable. Then, once we got the kitchen up and running, it was a lot of experiments.”
The pair would need to create a platter for 14 people, as well as an individual plate. They would learn in the fall that the former would need to include chicken and crawfish — they would stuff their chicken with mushrooms, foie gras and crawfish; the latter would have to be vegan — theirs would be green asparagus with toasted almond custard. Until then, the team would work on garnishes, side dishes and plating elements, all while trying to find ways to shave off any time they could for each preparation.
Some of the simplest insights revealed themselves only after extended periods of frustration.
“We were trying to figure out how to bake a potato fast enough and still have that fluffy potato feel,” the head chef offered as an example. “Typically, we would throw it in an oven and bake it off in 45 minutes. So, the next tool that we were utilizing was a microwave. Well, microwaves were kind of giving us this starchy exterior crust to the potato, and we were losing a lot of the potato, as well as it coming out gummy. The whole time, we’re throwing a ton (of other food) that we needed to cook into a steamer. So we were thinking, ‘Wow, this is just not coming out, and not coming out, over and over and over again.’ Then, after probably a month of doing this and beating our heads against a wall, somebody just says, ‘Why don’t we just throw it in the steamer?’”
He laughed about the obviousness of the solution now. But, he insisted, “(When) you’re wrapping your head around all these other details, sometimes the basic things, you’re just not thinking about — or not thinking about hard enough.”
When the team finally arrived in Lyon, Peters said the pressure was intense.
The whole world was watching us at that point,” he recalled. “There was this heightened expectation. When it was our turn to get into that box, every other chef was around us. All the eyes were on us. What are they going to do? Did they come back ready to go? Are we gonna accomplish what we left behind?”
In the wake of the win, the team has erased all doubts about what America is capable of doing on a high-pressure world culinary stage. And Peters, who is preparing to open his own restaurant in Austin, said he will carry the experience with him throughout his career.
“Every little bit of it pertains to the kitchen,” he said. “And it actually taught me more about being able to organize myself and function in a restaurant. It’s a direct tie.”
The American competitors for 2019 will be chosen this December.
“It would be wonderful to have Las Vegas as a part of this process again,” said Keller.
A very long farm-to-table journey
When Peters and Turine had the chance to give the Bocuse d’Or judges a taste of the USA, they decided to do it literally as well as figuratively. Their platter and plates didn’t just demonstrate American ingenuity; they also showcased American vegetables and other produce. For that touch, Peters turned to an old collaborator from Yountville: The French Laundry’s head gardener, Aaron Keefer.
“I had the opportunity to work at (The) French Laundry five years ago or so, and creating a relationship with the gardener across the street (from the restaurant) was always a big part of the restaurant, and the cuisine, and the menu,” Peters explained. “So Aaron, the gardener, and I, we created a great relationship in the past. So coming back to Yountville (to train), we just picked back up from where that was.”
Of course, The French Laundry changes menus several times a year. As new vegetables come into season, the chefs are free to play and experiment with them for a few months, and then eliminate them when something else becomes timelier. The Bocuse d’Or presented a much more difficult challenge.
“The hardest part,” said Peters, “is that you’re trying to design a menu that you’ll be able to present in January, the middle of winter, while you’re experimenting and playing around with it in the spring. It’s not an ideal growing season for the products that you’ll have at that time. So for us, it was trying to find something that almost could be grown year-round that we knew that (in) January would be (at) the height of the season.”
Because of that, they found themselves turning to root vegetables that could be harvested and practiced with all year. Carrots, for example, received a prominent spot on their plates. Other choices included onions and fennel pollen, the latter of which they freeze-dried and brought with them to impart an anise flavor to their dishes.
When it finally was time to head to Lyon two weeks before the competition, Keefer stayed behind. But they continued to work together long distance.
“He would take all the product that was in the area that we’d allotted onto the platter,” Peters said of Keefer, “and he would ship it every couple of days, so we had it not only for the training, but for the final day.”
All of that preparation, and the knowledge of their ingredients right down to the dirt in which they were grown, clearly paid off on competition day when every bite contained a true taste of America.
The American platter at a food competition in Lyon is hardly where one would expect to find the work of a former blacksmith born in the Czech Republic. But Peters and Turone are convinced that they may not have taken home their gold medals without the contributions of Martin Kastner.
But Kastner and his Chicago-based company, Crucial Detail, are no newcomers to the world of fine dining. The innovative service ware he designed for Chicago’s legendary temple of molecular gastronomy Alinea scored him a spot on The Future Laboratory’s list of 100 most influential individuals in contemporary design. And his Porthole infuser, designed for chef Grant Achatz’s Chicago molecular cocktail lounge, The Aviary, has been mass produced for home chefs and mixologists to use for infusing their own oils, teas, broths, dressings, and both cocktails and soft drinks.
Kastner is no stranger to the Bocuse d’Or. In 2015, he worked with the American team to design elements of its presentation pieces, and many viewed his introduction of heat elements as fundamental to the team’s second-place finish. So Peters was thrilled to have the chance to work with the designer. And, once again, he saw keeping the small morsels of food warm from the time they were finished cooking until the time the judges put them into their mouths as a key to success.
“There’s just so much time that goes in between,” the chef explained of the 15 or more minutes in which the food has the potential to revert to an unpleasing temperature. “From plating it, to walking it around, to replating it for the judges to taste.
“So that’s one of the biggest challenges: trying to keep things hot, as well as the flavor of the food — and that’s a huge percentage of your score. So being able to deliver that makes up a lot for us.”
But that’s just one of many problems Kastner helped the team to solve during their many trips to Chicago and his visits to California.
“We would go to his studio and just talk, and (we’d) try to figure out how to refine a technique,” Turone said of the process. “And then, also, he would watch our runs and come up with tools that would just shave off seconds if not hours.
“Like we had this carrot-shaver. We were sitting there with this grout tool, and we would sit there and shave the carrot by hand. And it took forever. I remember we did a run … and Phil was like, ‘You need to find a faster way. You can’t do this; it’s taking way too long.’ And then Martin designed this pencil shaver just for the carrot, and it literally took off probably an hour out of our run, which is huge.”
Other products he brought to the kitchen included a press, molds and stands.
“Everything that was built around that plate or was served on the side was developed by Martin Kastner,” Peters said.