On Sunday, chef Richard Rosendale (The Greenbrier, White Sulphur Springs, WV) won the Bocuse d'Or USA trials. He is now captain of the American team and will probably spend the next year thinking about few things other than succeeding at the 2013 international competition in Lyon, France. Earlier this morning, Rosendale got on the phone to talk about how things will be different this time, what he brings to the table, and what goes into becoming a successful competitive chef.
The unavoidable sentence in most articles about the Bocuse d'Or USA recently seems to be, "after several disappointing finishes for the team in Lyon." What do you think has to change for the U.S. team to succeed in 2013?
I really do feel like it can be different this time. I certainly don't cast any judgments on the prior teams or the prior candidates, because they are wildly talented individuals. That being said, the one thing that I bring to the table that probably makes the synergy kind of click is the excessive competition experience that I have.
Can you elaborate on that?
Cooking at the international competitive level is very different from what you do on a daily basis in your restaurant. The philosophies are different. You can't go in there with the mindset that you'll have just a simple preparation that tastes phenomenal. You have to bring to the table a representation of the craft, layers of technique, and over the top presentations with the guiding principle that everything has to be delicious.
When you have to do that in a five hour period, it's very difficult. That's when I dive into my competition experience. I've been in over forty national and international cooking competitions and I also went through the 130-hour, eight day certified master chef exam. The one thing that you would see if you watched how I work is that I'm extremely meticulous and very disciplined. I apply exactitude to everything that I do and remove so many variables from the kitchen that I am able to control and take on a much more ambitious program.
I think that experience partnered with the unbelievable depth of knowledge and resources from Chefs Keller, Boulud, Bocuse, Kaysen, and Achatz is really pretty impressive. I think it's going to be an exciting performance. I really think it's going to be different this time.
Would you then say that it's fundamentally different to be a successful competitive chef and someone who cooks at a restaurant, even if it's world-class?
I think that the way that I cook at the Greenbrier is different from what I do in the arena. In these world-class restaurants, simplicity is okay. It's all right to just have a story about the turnips on the plate or having a silky smooth purée of parsnips. But if you're taking that philosophy to the international arena and competing with some of the best chefs in the world, it's just not good enough.
The mindset that is going to conquer the day whenever you look at the dizzying preparations of these other chefs is that it has to be...
Over the top?
This competition is the ultimate example of French finesse and mind-blowing presentations. The other thing is that the majority of the points — 40 of the 60 — are on taste. And when you have presentations that are that complex and have such a clean and tight appearance, it's very difficult to have those taste as excellent.
One of the new developments this year is that Grant Achatz and Gabriel Kreuther will be part of the process, advising from the modernist and traditional perspective, respectively. To someone who isn't too familiar with this competition, it seems that it's so steeped in tradition, in Bocuse, in classic France. How much room is there for the modern?
There is definitely room. One of the exercises that I've gone through over the years is using classical cooking as the starting point. I did a dinner in the fall where we took something like consommé gladiator — something that when you read Escoffier doesn't seem very glamorous and is rather hearty with the poached egg and barley — and decided to put it on the menu. What came out was very different: we took the barley and we pulverized it and we made a barley crisp, then we put little pearls of egg yolk to sort of dance upon the crisp, and then we did all of these very interesting preparations using the same profile. In essence, we payed homage to that classical dish. I'm not saying that you should recreate dishes of an era gone past, but I'm suggesting that they are still relevant in cooking today.
Absolutely, there is room for it. You have to have Escoffier in one hand and a circulator in the other.
What do you have coming up on the agenda? Last I saw, it was a trip to the French Laundry house in Napa.
I actually suggested some modifications to that. Before we go to the French Laundry, I want to build a duplicate kitchen of the one we will have in Lyon here at the Greenbrier. That's the first thing that we are going to do. We are going to ship in all the equipment and make it inch-by-inch the same. In fact, I want to use the same electrical requirements so I can gauge the power levels of the equipment.
Then we have a major trip in March to see the European finals to observe the top competitors.
Just to hear how intense it will probably sound, how much time do you envision dedicating to this?
This is basically going to be like having a second full-time job. There's no question. To give you an idea of the kind of focus that I put in for this, I've been doing fundraising since the last competition. I set up a trip to Norway to Stavanger and spent time with one of the winners of the Bocuse d'Or in 2009. I spent time with the team coach over there, I met several other competitors, and I hired a personal trainer. Before they even announced the trial, I knew that I was going to be doing it this time.
People say, "Do you need a trainer for a five-hour competition?" No, but you do need it to not get fatigued or have it affect other aspects of your life. You know, I still have a full-time job and my wife and I are expecting another baby. You have to be in top mental and physical condition.
You basically are coming at this from the perspective of an athlete.
Oh, there's no question. I had my first drop of alcohol the night of the competition. I had been doing this refined food all day long, and super late at night, when we got out, I went and had a hamburger and a beer.
I really believe that this is going to be special and noteworthy. This country should be on the podium. I'll say that it's almost unfair to take these amazing cooks like James Kent and Timothy Hollingsworth — these guys that are just incredible — and expect that within a year they are going to capture a lifetime of experience to get ready for this competition? But that's what I've been doing my whole life. No question. I've had my eyes on this for over ten years. Everything I have done has been aligned with someday doing this.
I know it's early, but what's your vision for what you will present in Lyon?
I didn't really waste any time. The next morning I already was thinking about proteins and different fish. Whatever I do will pay homage to the craft and the technique and also, I really believe that I will blend the classical and the modernist seamlessly.