Bocuse d'Or 2007
In equal parts a cookery contest and a carnival, the Bocuse d'Or has once more proved itself as the world's most prestigious culinary competition. While British representative André Garrett, head chef at Galvin at Windows, Hilton on Park Lane, London, more than proved his credentials as a serious contender by coming 10th out of 24 competitors, it was the French contestant who was once again triumphant, with Denmark and Switzerland placed second and third.
Fabrice Desvignes, sous chef at the Présidence du Sénat in Paris, carried off the Bocuse d'Or trophy, along with a cheque for €20,000 (£13,174). His victory came after two days of exacting competition at the Eurexpo Centre in Lyons, France - and found favour with some of the world's most partisan supporters, who filled the venue with their exuberant cheering throughout the event.
The result will, no doubt, help raise the profile of Desvignes around the culinary globe, as well as reminding us all of the stature of Paul Bocuse - the man who founded of the competition 20 years ago.
Bocuse is nearly 81 now, and his mere presence creates frenzy among the French supporters. Behind the scenes a special room that is put aside for the chefs who have worked and supported him over the years has a notice on the door that reads "the disciples of Paul Bocuse".
A cynic might say that a French victory is nothing less than Bocuse expects in order to remind onlookers of the pre-eminent position that he believes France occupies in world gastronomy. The look of jubilation on Bocuse's face as he read out Desvinges name as the 11th recipient of the award (the competition is held every two years) and the fact that France has now won the trophy on seven occasions would certainly back this up.
Of course, the French chefs have an advantage because the competition is held in Bocuse's home city of Lyons, but the judging is as open and transparent as it can possibly be, with the final marks from all 24 judges being published as soon as the results are announced.
As the UK's representative on the judging panel, Brian Turner, president of the Academy of Culinary Arts, tasted the fish course and marked France in the top four, along with Denmark, Switzerland and the UK. "André's fish tasted sensational and I was not the only judge who thought that," says Turner. "But the French fish dish was very impressive, too."
Turner believes the ongoing success of the French at the Bocuse d'Or is all down to meticulous planning. "The French candidate always has tremendous support from the most highly skilled and qualified artisan chefs in France in the months leading up to the competition, which helps give them an edge. At the same time, the style of the French cooking tends to suit the viewpoint of many of the judges."
Preparation is undoubtedly the linchpin to success in the Bocuse d'Or - something that requires both time and money. While some contestants were able to devote themselves full-time to the task in hand - the constant refinement and practising of dishes - others had to fit in any preparation between busy shifts in restaurants, hotels and other workplaces.
The money that was available to each candidate to provide ingredients for practice sessions, silverware for presentation, transportation and supporters' paraphernalia, was variable, too, with limited cash for the likes of Russia, Argentina and Mexico. At the other end of the scale, the Icelandic competitor was flown to Lyons in a chartered airplane emblazoned with his name, while the Danish entrant is believed to have been backed by sponsorship of about €180,000 (£118,566).
Desvignes raised €40,000 (£26,348) to support his entry, which enabled him to undergo eight complete cook-offs of his two competition dishes. "He also practised each individual dish on many occasions," says his manager, Stéphane Rivière. "Fabrice was selected to represent France in March 2006 after beating seven other chefs in a competition. During the nine months he had to prepare for the Bocuse d'Or he continued to work full-time in the kitchens of the Présidence du Sénat - often working eight-hour days, followed by four to five hours of practice. He also prepared on Saturdays and Sundays and sometimes during the night."
Rivière believes the support each competitor receives is crucial for success. "We raised money for T-shirts for everybody and booked a train to transport Fabrice's supporters, who included students, colleagues and friends. We made sure everyone made as much noise as possible and sung La Marseillaise each time Fabrice presented his dishes. I don't know how much this influenced the judges, but they certainly took note when the French dishes were served."
Indeed, the noise and the razzmatazz that accompanies the Bocuse d'Or has become as much a part of the event as the cooking itself. The cheering and chanting of the supporters is accompanied by the deafening noise of horns, whistles, cow bells and rattles - all rising to a crescendo upon the presentation of each nation's dish when a triumphant blast of music adds to the raucous spectacle.
"The first time I heard a cheer from the British crowd certainly brought a little smile to my face," says Garrett, who was the first British competitor in the history of the event to be accompanied by a significant band of supporters. As well as his wife, Roisin, and a coterie of friends, colleagues and fellow chefs, there was a group of students from Stratford-upon-Avon College to helped boost the British contingent to about 100 noisy supporters.
Back in London a few days later, Garrett is still very upbeat about the competition. "I've learnt so much from the experience, both about myself personally and as a chef. As a result I think I will be much stronger and even more focused on my cooking. I would love to do it again, but I think I need to wait a couple of months before deciding to make the commitment. Having done it once will help tremendously next time."
Although pleased with the dishes he produced on the day, Garrett was initially disappointed with his 10th placing. "However, once I saw what some of the other chefs produced, I understood - the French guy's dishes in particular were spectacular."
Garrett, who received about £15,000 in financial support, was selected by the Academy of Culinary Arts to represent the UK after achieving the highest score in the 2004 Master of Culinary Arts competition. He spent much of preparation time working with his mentor, John Williams, executive chef at the Ritz, London (a past Bocuse d'Or competitor), and his commis chef for the event, Adam Smith, also based at the Ritz.
"André did brilliantly well to finish in the top 10," Williams says. "There is no doubt that we are up there with the leaders when it comes to the taste of our dishes, but it's with the presentation that the other teams beat us. Some of the winning dishes appeared to be quite simple, but showed supreme perfection in their execution."
Already looking ahead to the 2009 Bocuse d'Or, Williams believes that with the right kind of sponsorship, the UK could considerably improve its position. "It will take the candidate a year to prepare for the event on a part-time basis - or around six months if he was able to devote himself full-time to the cause."
The chefs' task
The 24 chefs - representing every corner of the globe - had to prepare, cook and serve two dishes within five-and-a-half hours.
The base products were the same for every candidate - white Norwegian halibut and red king crab for the fish dish and poulet de Bresse for the meat dish - while the composition of the garnishes and presentation of the final dishes were left to each chef's skill and discretion.
Each candidate had to present 12 portions of their finished dishes on a one metre long platter - usually a specially commissioned piece of silverware - with two extra portions presented on individual plates: one for the official photograph and the other to show the serving presentation.
The Judges' task
Chaired by Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, and Serge Vieira, the 2005 French winner of the Bocuse d'Or, the panel included 24 other judges, each representing a competing country.
It was Blumenthal's first visit to the event. "I've judged four or five major competitions before, but nothing quite like this," he says. "The rigorous work undertaken by the candidates was coupled with the most amazing and supportive crowd that just went ballistic at every available opportunity."
Among the judges alongside British representative Brian Turner were Gualtiero Marchesi of Italy, Philippe Rochat of Switzerland and John Folse of the USA.
The jury was separated into two groups of 12, one judging the meat and one the fish. Marks were awarded out of a total of 60 points, with 40 points given for taste and 20 points for presentation. The highest and lowest marks were discarded when the final scores were calculated.
In addition to the gold trophy - based on an effigy of Bocuse - the winner received €20,000 (£13,174). The silver trophy plus €15,000 (£9,895) went to Rasmus Kofoed of Denmark, who had come third in the 2005 competition, and the bronze trophy plus €10,000 (£6,596) went to Frank Giovannini of Switzerland.
The prize for the best fish dish was presented to Norway and the best meat dish was won by Sweden, with awards for the best culinary identity and best poster both going to Japan. China picked up the award for the best commis.
Andre Garrett's menu
Chartreuse of red king crab Marie Antoinette glazed with truffle, halibut confited in smoked oil and topped with braised belly pork, boudin of red king crab with caviar
Garnishes: confit of beetroot stuffed with salted ox tongue and truffle gâteau of salsify small box of baby squid with lobster
Ballotine of poulet de Bresse with salted ox tongue and foie gras wrapped in Alsacian ham
Garnishes: glass egg filled with a sweetcorn cream, ragoût of cockscomb and kidneys and topped with a chicken wing stuffed with lobster foie gras praline with truffle, savarin lined with pasta stuffed with chestnut purée and topped with a glazed chestnut
The Support Team
André Garrett would like to thank everyone who helped him, including the London Hilton on Park Lane and general manager Michael Shepherd, his immediate boss, Chris Galvin, Christian Delteil for co-ordinating much of the sponsorship, David Baldwin for providing the silverware, Dairy Crest for providing the van that took ingredients and equipment to Lyons, Georg Heise for driving the van. Support was also provided by the Academy of Culinary Arts, Continental Chef Supplies, Ritter Courivaud, Mash Purveyors, Grivan, Chamberlain & Thelwell, Finclass, Thermomix, Hepp, Villeroy & Boch, Steelite, Geruder Hepp Pforzheim, James Knight of Mayfair, Chef's Connection, Barry Callebaut, Richard Vine, Le Colombier, Norwegian Seafood, Hansens, Meyer Prestige, Duchy Originals and H&B Food Provisions.