In spite of a Herculean effort and the creation of some jaw-dropping displays of gastronomy, Team UK came 10th in this year’s Bocuse d’Or competition, but they are far from despondent. Vincent Wood takes a front-row seat at the greatest show on earth. Photography by Jodi Hinds
There was a point during the Bocuse d’Or in Lyon when the entire crowd – hundreds of people – held their breath. The platter of veal from Team Denmark’s Kenneth Toft-Hansen had been carried precariously past the judges, each one taking a photo on their phones, and set down on a table at the far end of the hall.
Fragrant steam streams from beneath the central cut, a vast veal rib, as the team’s chef slices into the meat just above the bones. The spectators in the room, so loud they had been approaching jet engine decibels all day, silently wait, watch and – as the candidate reveals that the flesh inside is perfectly rose-coloured – erupt into cheers. Sirens blare, horns blast and drums roll to a crescendo as the meat is carved and plated. With the technique and talent of the generation’s finest chefs combined with the atmosphere of a sporting cup final, there is nothing in the world quite like the Bocuse d’Or.
The competition started in 1987 when the late three-Michelin-starred chef Paul Bocuse decided that trade fair the Salon international de la restauration de l’hôtellerie et de l’alimentation – better known as SIRHA – could be elevated by a culinary competition. It was to include a live audience (something new for the time, that would evolve from bystanders to full-throated participants as attendees became louder and more organised) and gold, silver and bronze awards. It was around this time that Bocuse, who died in February last year, was accused of watering down his commitment to cuisine by spending less time in the kitchen.
Yet the Bocuse d’Or remains one of his most enduring legacies – and perhaps the most prestigious competition on the planet. This year the ultimate challenge in cuisine came down to producing two concepts in five and a half hours – both tributes to great gastronomic losses to the industry in 2018. The first, a chartreuse, was for Joël Robuchon, who passed away in October; the second, a platter of veal in honour of Bocuse. Each comes with their limits: the number of scallops, mussels and other seafood in the chartreuse is meticulously outlined, the cuts of meat are to be presented on the platter equally.
However, it is a competition that always goes beyond the brief, traversing the fine line between incredible food and works of art, the sort of thing that could never reasonably be served in most restaurants, making it an incredible challenge for chefs.
For the 2019 event, the Team UK torch was handed to Tom Phillips of Restaurant Story in London, along with his commis Nathan Lane, previously of the Ritz London.
Phillips is in many ways uniquely placed to tackle the competition. For a start, he has followed the Bocuse d’Or – which is often overlooked in the UK – for years, and he has also crossed paths with some of its great alumni. His interest was piqued when he saw the certificate that executive chef of the Ritz London John Williams received for taking part in 2001, and he also worked alongside Matthew Peters at Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York when the American chef was building up to his first place victory in 2017.
Phillips says: “Me and Matthew went for coffee just before he was flying out to compete, and he gave me some pointers on what to do. I was going to work in France, but he said I should sack that off and either come and work at the French
Laundry and join the US team, or go back to the UK and be with their team.
“The first year that I came [to Lyon] was 2017 to support Matt, and it’s the same for everyone – you come here and you want to be involved.”
The infectious element of the Bocuse d’Or is the unity of paradigm-shifting skill and the electric atmosphere the audience bring to the day. French competitions are always accused of being sticklers for tradition, of calling for nouvelle cuisine above all and not adapting to change. Bocuse d’Or is far from exempt from that, but in reality it is unfounded. The trial is what happens when tradition is allowed to grow into madness – something awe-inspiring and endlessly loud.
Team coach Adam Bennett holds the title as the closest Team UK has ever come to a podium position, missing bronze by six points in a competition where marks run into the thousands. The chef-director at the one-Michelin-starred Cross in Kenilworth says the competition has always been about pushing the boundaries of the brief as far as they can be stretched, using new techniques and styles to create dishes the world has never seen before and may never see again.
The other revolutionary element of the event is the noise. The chefs’ recipes may be sacred, but the room is no chapel; instead, it has the crackling energy of a football stadium – something that began the first time Mexico qualified for the final and brought a mariachi band along. The packed audience remains from start to finish, each country’s supporters sitting in blocks, each with their own unique style of making themselves heard.
At one point roughly 100 Norwegians stand up to shake bells in a wall of sound, while Icelandic supporters begin the thunderclap that has became a signature chant for fans of their international football team. The England supporters’ band – the very same who cheered the nation through to the World Cup semi-finals in Russia last year – returns fire and begins to blast brass instruments and smash drums. Denmark, next to the raucous British contingent, let off confetti and wail police sirens through a megaphone. All of this happens at 10.30am, when there are hours still to go, and with nothing to prompt any of it.
It’s hard to know whether the noise works to bolster morale or distract other competitors. During Team UK’s run, the supporters’ band strikes up a round of ‘When the Saints Come Marching In’ – by far the loudest noise in the venue. Phillips, while working through the intricate stencil work of his chartreuse, is nodding along to the beat. “When you’re down here doing this and you hear that, it lifts you,” says Bennett as he oversees his two chefs like a conductor, as well as watching some 30 timers on an iPad.
Simon Rogan of L’Enclume in Cartmel, Cumbria, who took on the role of Team UK’s president from Brian Turner last year, the latter having served 30 years in the post, seems less sure: “They could do with going down the other end,” he says, gesturing to last year’s winners, the US contingent, overseen by team president Thomas Keller. However, Phillips and Lane had prepared themselves for the noise – as had many other teams. In the past the US team blasted techno music during rehearsals to prepare for the big day.
Team UK trained in University College Birmingham, blasting the audio from previous years so loudly that it rang through the corridors. “If you don’t do that you won’t be able to focus,” says Phillips – but that’s not to say it isn’t motivating. “You do get into it. I’ve been listening to those bloody songs for the last four months and some of them are quite good.”
The noise isn’t the only thing in play as teams look to shake the nerve of their opponents. This year, in the run-up to the final, several teams decided to reveal their garnishes and preparations through Instagram. “I’m sure it got to me a bit, because they’re putting something out that is genuinely stunning and you know that it’s coming from teams that are going to deliver very well, so I stopped looking,” explains Phillips. “I just stopped going on Instagram, because what am I going to gain from it? It’s either going to worry me or upset me and I didn’t need that.”
He adds: “I joked about it with Nathan, saying I might go and put a square of cheese and a square of pineapple on a cocktail stick and post a picture saying it’s the UK’s garnish. Or just put a big fat Yorkshire pudding on there just to wind everyone up.”
The two chartreuse are plated by each coach – in the UK’s case, Bennett. It’s a tense affair as one is presented to the judges and media before being plated, and every second counts. It is also the culmination of not just that day’s work, but of the two years leading up to it – from the UK heats to the European heats in Turin, Italy, last year, to this moment. Many coaches, all of them seasoned in their arts and prominent in their nation’s industries, have to gather their composure to stop their hands from shaking as they plate. Team UK’s gets away just in time to not incur a penalty, while the band plays Rule Britannia.
As the dish is presented to the judges (each country’s president serves on the tasting jury), plus executive members of competition’s board, including its president, Bocuse’s son, Jérôme, the events compere talks about the shift in British cuisine, something that grates on a lot of the Brits present – talking about what Michel Roux called the culinary desert in the UK, saying British cuisine was fostered in the home through roast dinners, talking about culinary excellence on the island nation as something almost entirely new. Ahead of the big day, Rogan told The Caterer that his motivation was to “help the UK throw off this image of having shit food and show that we can compete with anyone in the world”.
One person that message seems to have struck is Keller, the legendary chef behind the French Laundry, who took his nation from an outlier in the competition to a gold trophy winner. Multiple people at the competition said the chef had repeatedly remarked on the incredible cooking Phillips had produced, telling people inside and outside his team that he simply could not stop eating the food served from the Team UK platter.
At the final ceremony, after two days, 24 platters and 48 chartreuse, the awards are handed out. Tributes are paid to Bocuse and his legacy, while respects are paid to visiting dignitaries, including a Swedish prince. Ahead of the big reveal, Phillips had said anything within the top 10 would count as a win – comparing it to his rank in the European heats and noting that, when including some of the top-tier teams from the rest of the world, the UK sat somewhere around 14th.
Gold goes to Denmark and candidate Kenneth Toft-Hansen, who had competed the other side of the kitchen wall from Team UK. All three podium positions are taken up by Scandinavia. Some award winners who fall short of gold skulk up to the podium, seemingly unhappy with their lot. After the confetti and fireworks are done, the full results are released without fanfare – with tight margins, Team UK are named 10th best in the world, a placing one behind previous winners the US.
The result rivals some of the nation’s industry greats, including Simon Hulstone, who came in the same position when he competed, but it comes with a sense of deflation. “I’m maybe a bit disappointed with where we’ve come,” says Rogan shortly afterwards “but this scoring is a bit of a minefield. You don’t normally always come where you think you deserve to, but it’s just one of those things – but top 10, that’s nothing to complain about.”
Before the results are released, Phillips notes one of the more off-the-wall elements of the competition, an application that, among other things, asked him for his favourite quote. His was “calm seas don’t make good sailors”, something that became all the more relevant in the European heats when, due to water pressure issues, Team UK lost the use of their oven for 40 minutes. After keeping a clear head while Bennett furiously rearranged the team’s schedule, they brought that deficit down to just 15 minutes and qualified for the final.
“Getting through what we went through in Turin I had the confidence to say, OK, that’s not going to happen in Lyon, but we are going to have other problems for sure. And I know that we got through that, so we’re going to get through whatever Lyon throws at us.”
While he is clearly disappointed not to have crept slightly higher up the leader board, a feeling blended with the close of a two-year chapter of his life, Phillips’ focus remains.
He thanks his team, his family and the band, who play a last run-through of each of their songs. He praises Toft-Hansen for his win and mulls over the future.
“I said I wanted to be top 10 and we’re 10th,” he says. “It still has to sink in, really, that it’s over and we’ve done it. We have to just take what we’ve learned now, improve, come back again and sort it out, get on that podium.”
With the crowd still ringing in his ears, he gives the walls of the venue a decisive thump. “We’ll be back,” he says, before walking back into the crowd, to his team, and to the end of the greatest culinary show on earth.
The England Supporters’ Band
The UK has a reputation for supporting the national team with significant noise – most of which comes from the England Supporters’ Band, who returned for their first international foray since the nation’s football World Cup in Russia last year.
Band leader and trumpet player John Hemmingham said: “It’s one of the best things we do. People appreciate it and get into the spirit of it all, and the contestants appreciate it too.”
There is, of course, some give and take with the organisers: the five-man band regularly has a supportive spotlight placed on them throughout the day, just in case anyone was unsure as to where the noise was coming from, but it is understood that French culinary titan Regis Marcon is less than keen on the band interrupting his speeches – so the quintet stay quiet at the appropriate time.