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On Team USA Losing at the Bocuse d'Or

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Kaysen watching the clocks.
Kaysen watching the clocks.
[Photos: Joshua David Stein /]

After eighteen months, five hours, and 35 minutes, Team USA had done all it could to win the Bocuse d'Or. James Kent and Thomas Allan had served their fish and their meat. The monkfish on a curving platter meant to evoke Sag Harbor; the lamb on an angular platter meant to evoke both the chaos of Manhattan, and the order imposed by the city grid. It was inspired by 8 Spruce St, the Frank Gehry building Mr. Kent can see from his home in Brooklyn Heights. By 3:10, there was nothing more to do but sit in a mixture of uneasy expectation and giddy relief and wait.

As we know by now, Team USA was awaiting a disappointing fate. Instead of coming first, or even podiuming, Team USA placed 10th, well below last year's finish and far from the victory they had craved. Instead, the winner was Denmark, chased by Sweden and Norway. It was a Nordic sweep, extra laurels for a region that already has nice furniture, splendid center-left governments, beautiful austere landscapes, and good looking people.

Defeat is always bitter, leaves one searching for lessons that might have escaped the wreckage, glinting bits of silver amidst the ruins. Was it simply that Denmark — whose chef Rasmuss Kofoed had already won bronze in 2005 and silver in 2007 — had out-conceived, out-executed and out-cooked Messrs. Kent and Allan? Surely he did all of those things. The Danish dishes, which in typical Danish fashion are already available on the team's Facebook page were short on personal narrative but long on execution.

Sweden, who took second, used a fire and ice motif. Team USA, however, used Mr. Kent's personal story of a childhood split between Manhattan and Sag Harbor to craft a chaos v. calm motif. For the meat dish, Mr. Kent riffed on steakhouse flavors and New York classics like a wedge salad, a T-bone steak (though here lamb), tomatoes (though here frozen tomato puree, water and lycopene in a truffle mold) and Oysters Rockefeller. For the fish dish, Mr. Kent used a BMW-designed platter that evoked Sag Harbor, complete with pylons and seaweed. His monkfish came with a "bone" of monkfish liver wrapped in seaweed paper. But the ultimate and underlying story there, made explicit in the booklets given to the judges, was heavily autobiographical.

I wonder if, in the future, it may be wiser to forego autobiography whose idiosyncratic genuineness some judges — bearing as they must political views — might mistake for typical American narcissism. Such, perhaps, are the dangers of a multipolar world. If you looked at the winning dishes, none of them made a narrative as autobiographical or personal as Team USA's.

But the bigger question is how one reconciles the value of Team USA's Herculean efforts and the hundreds of thousands of dollars its supporters have spent with the petty valuation assessed by the Bocuse d'Or jury. This is a question most personally dealt with, I'm sure, by chef James Kent, sous chef Thomas Allan, coaches Gavin Kaysen and Marc Erickson and president of the jury Thomas Keller.

One on hand, they can use this defeat as a springboard to attack the Bocuse 2013 with a renewed fervor and vengeance; that is, turn it into a revenge narrative. This is exactly what Rasmuss Kofoed has done and it worked. But gripping his award at the gala dinner later last night, Kofoed sounded more relieved than joyful, "Thankfully, now I am free from this obsession!" Mr. Kofoed had devoted himself monkishly to the pursuit of the statue for the last eight years of his life. What else could he have done in that time, one wonders? From the looks of it, he could have easily started a moody soundscapey rock band or starred in a Dogma 66 film. One wonders if the Bocuse d'Or is as important to Mr. Kent, who has one child, another on the way, and an ambitious five year plan. If so, he has six more years to go.

But there's another avenue open to Mr. Kent and the rest of Team USA, and even to those supporters of the team who are, as they sit in a hotel room in Lyon, readying to fly back into the winter chaos of New York, wrestling with disappointment. Could it be that Mr. Kent's very journey to Lyon is itself a worthy transformation?

One wonders what he's gained and how he's changed by having concentrated with an ascetic single-mindedness of purpose for over eighteen months on the creation and execution of two dishes. One wonders whether thinking that hard about something is itself salutary and transformative. One wonders whether the connections he and Tom Allan and the stagiere Dan Catinella have made with the culinary council and the support of Messrs. Keller and Boulud in particular are severed since the team finished in defeat. One wonders how Mr. Allan, a 22 year old for one more day, has grown and benefited from the rigors of competition and the heartbreak of defeat.

One winces, perhaps, at the thought that this is exactly the type of thinking to which the defeated often grasp, trying to stay afloat in a sea of despair, to stay well above this sickness unto death. Well, certainly it is! Had Team USA brought home the gold, this coverage would be exultant, filled with triumphalism and exclamation marks!!! But, I think, though happier victory would be no more important a lesson than defeat.

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