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It's First Place or Nothing at the Bocuse D'Or 2011

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Today I fly to Lyon, home of the Bocuse d'Or competition, the biannual international culinary competition the United States has never won. But I won't let patriotism sway me nor tint my glasses rose, white and blue. As I once heard the curmudgeonly boxing journalist Burt Randolph Sugar yell, "No cheering in the press box."

The United States will be represented by James Kent, the sous chef at Eleven Madison Park. Behind him are some of America's best chefs, Danny Boulud and Tommy Keller, who are heavily involved in representing the United States in their roles as Chairman and President, respectively, of the Bocuse d'Or USA Foundation. There's also a Culinary Council with everybody from Grant Achatz to Eric Zeibold who advises Team USA.

But in the calm before the storm, when the kitchen is still gleaming and the proteins are saran-wrapped, it might be a good idea to ponder where exactly we expect Kent place. Will only first place sate the American need for primacy? Or is that setting ourselves up for disappointment? The word that gets tossed around a lot when discussing Bocuse d'Or 2011 expectations is "podium." It's used as a noun as when Daniel Boulud told a room full of backers, "We're going for gold this year but we'd be happy on the podium" but I've heard Gavin Kaysen, who represented the United States in 2007, use it as a verb, as in, "We want to podium." For a full exegesis on the word, see this gem of a curmudgeonly article circa the 2010 Winter Olympics when the verb "to podium" took off. That is my ask of you, that you read the article. Then we'll circle back and touch base.

If you look at the trajectory thus far — though, admittedly, two points a pattern does not make — it seems the expectations of podiuming might reasonably be met. In 2007, despite being waylaid by a sinister French dishwasher who ate his garnishes, Gavin Kaysen finished 14th. Two years later, Timothy Hollingsworth, benefiting perhaps from his training at The French Laundry, Kaysen's insight and three months of intense training at a replica kitchen in Napa, finished sixth. The jump from fourteenth to sixth place is a quantum one. In order for James Kent to fulfill the established pattern, he'll have to place two better than first place. That is, he must not to podium at all but rather hover above the podium, floating above the head of mere mortals with a little golden Bocuse in hand. But, just so we don't set unrealistic expectations, first will do quite fine too.

[Disclosure: Um, Eater obviously doesn't have the money to send me here so I'm here as a guest of All-Clad, which makes pots and stuff. These posts and more will appear on their Facebook page too.]

· All Bocuse d'Or Coverage on Eater [-E-]