The finals of the biennial chef competition took place in Lyon last week and were louder, madder and more inventive than ever. Neil Gerrard followed Adam Bennett and Team UK as they put in an amazing performance
It is a glorious spectacle that gives rise to some of the most unashamedly elevated, sophisticated, artful cooking you are ever likely to see, and this year's world finals in Lyon were no exception.
If you want a flavour of what it's like to be there, try and imagine one of the most raucous football matches you have ever been to, stretched over five hours and 30 minutes, and then throw in some of the biggest names in world gastronomy.
You can't go 10 metres without spotting some sort of chef idol, whether it's the USA's Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz, France's Régis Marcon, or the UK's very own Brian Turner.
Team UK's Adam Bennett seemed to be everywhere too, although the fact that his 100-plus supporters were kitted out with eerily realistic masks of the man they had come to cheer along, accompanied by an ear-splittingly loud brass band playing everything from Rule Britannia to My Old Man's a Dustman.
And that's without even really mentioning the support of the 23 other competing nations, including the alcohol-fuelled Icelanders, wearing plastic Viking helmets complete with flashing horns, who ran amok in the stands, or the French supporters who shattered what little peace remained with small plastic trumpets in a sort of Gallic response to the vuvuzela. Of course, Bennett has seen it all before.
This was his second tilt at the competition, having equalled the UK's best-ever result in 2013, placing fourth and winning the special prize for best meat dish (Clive Fretwell, now executive chef director of Blanc Brasseries, placed fourth and won individual gold medals in 1991 and 1993). To cap it all, Kristian Curtis took away the title for best commis in the same year.
Team UK: Josh Allen, Adam Bennett and Idris Caldora
In fact, while the competition itself is more than a little eccentric, you probably have to be slightly insane to enter the thing in the first place, let alone for a second time.
Bennett, commis chef Josh Allen and coach Idris Caldora each made a serious commitment to be at the world finals. Having placed 6th at the European Selection in Stockholm last year, they put in 300 hours' preparation for the competition, and a total of 11 run-throughs that was probably helped by at their dedicated Bocuse d'Or kitchen at University College Birmingham.
The aim, simply put, is to produce two dishes for the international panel of judges - a fish dish and a meat dish. Of course, it is rather more complicated than that in practice.
The chefs are told ahead of time what main ingredients they must use, and this year it was French fario trout for the fish dish, and guinea fowl for the meat. The fish is served up by the chefs on 14 plates, while the meat is presented on a platter, the design of which is also determined by each team.
The chefs are also expected to show off their skills with a variety of garnishes for both dishes. This year, matters were complicated by the fact that not only did competitors have to select the fruits and vegetables for the fish course from a competition market on the eve of the first day, they were also told that there would be a mandatory vegetable that they all had to use.
Meat; Slow cooked leg of guinea fowl, Wiltshire ham, tongue and veal sweetbread; Parfait of guinea fowl livers, beetroot glaze; Crisp potato dentelle, St George's mushroom cream; Evesham 'red meat' turnips, quinoa and tarragon; Staffordshire cabbage cone with black lentils; Roasting juices with English apple verjuice and rosemary (Photo by Jodi Hinds)
The mystery vegetables were narrowed down to four possible options: fennel, leeks, celery, or butternut squash. While several chefs in the audience suggested that butternut squash was the least favourable option, Bennett had a plan for it. The one he really didn't want was celery.
Unfortunately, at around 8pm on the day before the competition, he and the other chefs were told that this was exactly what they would be getting.
"It was the one we practised with least. It's probably a personal thing but I don't find it as inspiring as some of the other vegetables," he says.
They also discovered that the set-up was against them, with their kitchen lacking the racking they had expected - a problem that seemed to be unique to their installation.
Nonetheless, the team got on with the job, as the chef, who somehow always manages to look calm and unmoved even in the heat of a competition, explains: "There is always going to be something in these competitions that comes out of the woodwork and if you let it faze you then you put yourself at a disadvantage, so you get on with it. It's business as usual."
The evening's preparations, and the fact that they had to meet at Sirha - the show in Lyon where the competition is held - at 6am the next day, meant that the team only had around three hours' sleep before they kicked off their attempt at glory, at 8.40am on the first day of the competition.
As the digital clock on the wall behind them counted down the time in imposingred numerals, Allen and Bennett went about their business quietly, methodically and wearing expressions of steely determination.
Meanwhile Caldora stood at the head of the kitchen, an array of stopwatches in front of him, as he kept a careful watch over his team's progress.
Pushing the limits
It was a sharp contrast to the throng of media personnel, VIPs, chefs and photographers in the press area directly in front of them. With the home country of France cooking immediately next door to Team UK, there was no shortage of attention, but the chefs hardly seemed to notice. Unsurprising really, given that they already had a lot to preoccupy them.
"I wouldn't say we felt comfortable," says Bennett. "The big difference in the way that we designed and planned this time is that we really pushed the amount of work we could fit into the time.
"Last year, it was quite comfortable because we were uncertain about how we would do for time, so we played it a little bit cautiously. This
time I thought that seeing as it was the last time I was doing it, we should push it and it would either collapse around us because we couldn't quite pull it off, or we would do well. It was far more intense here. The meat platter in particular had an lot more work in it than last time."
It may have taken more work, but it was worth it. If the competition has something of the beautiful game about it, then Bennett's meat dish was game made beautiful. Presented on a platter made by Heritage Silverware (which Bennett hadn't even seen until the day before the competition) it was a strikingly unique creation and one that showed just why Bennett won the special meat prize two years ago.
With specially designed clamps that allowed one boned leg of guinea fowl to hang downfrom the centre piece of the platter, it carried a theme of black and white throughout the dish, mirroring the colour of a guinea fowl's feathers, with supremes of guinea fowl covered in an intricate black and white coating of discs of celeriac and black truffle.
"We managed to pull everything off, so it was great," says Bennett. "It had never been tested. A lot of thought went into it so in theory it should have worked but with these things you can never quite tell until you have done it."
The dish, as well as Bennett's fish creation featuring the dreaded celery, helped Team UK to a very creditable 10th place, with Norway taking gold, the USA silver and Sweden bronze.
It was clear that the standard had been very high indeed, as Bennett himself had predicted before the result was announced: "I think what we have done is better than what we did last time. But I have looked around at some of the stuff that the other teams have done and I think everybody has raised their game," he says.
His two-time participation in the competition marks a significant achievement, and a high watermark for Team UK's involvement since it first took part in the contest's founding year in 1987.
Fish: Fillet of French fario trout with a lobster mousseline centre and nori seaweed; Celery purée; Celery fondant; Braised celery stem filled with a smoked trout brandade, topped with smoked trout, horseradish and croutons; Cylinder of potato cooked in saffron stock, creamed leeks, caviar and trout eggs on top 'Champagne' velouté (made with Nyetimber English sparkling wine) and a shellfish sauce; Watercress and pea shoots (photo by Jodi Hinds)
But if you want an example of how self-effacing Bennett is about his achievements, then you just had to see how he reacted when, having completed his stint in the kitchen, the Team UK supporters started chanting "there's only one Adam Bennett". He gave a humble wave and pointed straight at his commis, Allen, and encouraged him to share in the praise.
Nonetheless, now that the hard work and the madness has drawn to a close, Bennett plans to enjoy looking back on the experience for a while before he returns to normal life.
"I want to enjoy the achievement of having got to the Bocuse d'Or final," he says. "I am the world's worst at criticising myself and doing something that's an achievement and then forgetting about it. But I think with this sort of thing you need to allow yourself to enjoy the glow for a little while before you move on."
He is also full of praise for both of the other key members of his team. Allen, 22, now returns to his studies in culinary arts management, having been allowed dispensation to compete.
"Just like Kristian, he has been a great guy and has shown the sort of application and steel that it takes to get through this," says Bennett. "He has been a credit to himself."
Meanwhile, Caldora has been the backbone of the team, according to Bennett. "When you are going to Bocuse d'Or and you are going through tough times with training or trying to find inspiration, you need someone there who can perk things up a bit and keep everyone positive. Idris has got a great eye for detail. He will watch us very closely and very politely put forward a suggestion for another way we might be doing something."
He is also at pains to mention the contribution from Matt Nicholls, 19, who was Team UK's apprentice. An employee at Andreas Antona's Simpsons restaurant in Birmingham, he was responsible for the kitchen setup for Bennett and Allen's practice sessions, saving the chefs hours of time.
Despite not matching his 2013 result, Bennett remains positive about his Bocuse d'Or experience: "I've had a hell of a ride again and loved every minute. The strength of this competition is that every time the bar gets raised and it's always an honour to represent the country," he says.
It has not officially been determined who will follow in Bennett's footsteps at the next Bocuse d'Or, with the 2016 European selection taking place in Budapest. But whoever does come after him in this crazy, boisterous and gruelling contest has a very tough act to follow.
Bocuse d'Or 2015 results
1. Norway Árjan Johannessen (1662 points)
2. USA Philip Tessier (1653)
3. Sweden Tommy Myllymaki (1610)
4. Finland Matti JÁ¤msen (1599)
5. Japan Hideki Takayama (1553)
6. Denmark Kenneth Hansen (1509)
7. France Nicolas Davouze (1484)
8. Iceland Sigurdur Helgason (1435)
9. Netherlands Jan Smink (1423)
10. UK Adam Bennett (1401)
11. Germany Christian KrÁ¼ger (1383)
12. Australia Shannon Kellam (1344)
13. Hungary GÁ bor Molnar (1338)
14. Estonia Dmitri Haljukov (1324)
15. Argentina Emiliano Javier Schobert (1315)
16. Switzerland Christoph Hunziker (1314)
17. Singapore Eng Tong Yew (1301)
18. South Korea Dong Ki Kim (1300)
19. Morocco Issam Jaafari (1275)
20. Malaysia Kenneth Loke (1274)
21. Canada Laurent Godbout (1248)
22. Chile Mauricio Eduardo Nunez Diaz (1209)
23. Spain Alberto Moreno (1166)
24. Guatemala Victor Hugo Velasquez Hernandez (1071)
- Best fish course Hideki Takayama, Japan
- Best meat dish Matti JÁ¤msen, Finland
- Best promotional work Argentina
- Best poster Hungary
When it emerged that Árjan Johannesson from restaurant Bekkjarvick Gjestgiveri(Austevoll) in Norway had won this year's Bocuse d'Or it perhaps wasn't the greatest shock the contest has ever seen. This was Norway's ninth podium finish and their fifth gold since 1987.
The USA team, led by team president Thomas Keller, made the podium for the first time, having benefited from investment estimated to be in the millions of dollars over the past few years.
With Sweden, which hosted the European selection last year, rounding out the top three, it's clear that money talks when it comes to the Bocuse d'Or.
The UK has made real progress on this front, with backing from several sponsors, as well as strong support from the UCB and the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts, but the team hopes to raise more via a crowdfunding campaign with a target of £25,000 through website Indigogo.
Brian Turner, president of Team UK and the UK juror, says: "We're still in the top 10 of the world and with the funding we have we've moved forward significantly.
"We had great support out in Lyon so now we have to focus on turning that into the resource we need to match that of the most successful countries."
Perks are available in return for donations.
Full details: http://igg.me/at/bocusedoruk