It’s a few days since Christian André Pettersen's big win at Bocuse d’Or Europe 2020, where Team Norway, took gold for a second consecutive competition, flanked by silver and bronze winners, Denmark and Sweden. He’s already back in his office and back to "busy days" as we speak. “Now we are going through all the equipment from Tallinn, then we have to do an evaluation of the European final and start practicing for the world final,” he says.
There was no big after-party following his team's victorious finish on Friday night, not even a deserved good night’s sleep. Instead the team travelled through the night to reach home from Tallinn. “You are a bit exhausted after a competition like this, but when you get the right colour on the statue it doesn’t matter,” he laughs. After all, this is the culinary equivalent of the Olympics, and Pettersen's outlook is like that of a finely-tuned athlete.
His Bocuse d'Or debut was in 2018, at just 28 years old. He won his first gold in the 2018 European Finals, and bronze in the 2019 world finals. He turned 31 this year and he already feels more mature, and his team is better-prepared. “I have learnt from last time and I have grown up since then. Maybe another point of view of everything, and my team has gotten stronger, and we know each other really well now,” he says. In fact, he says his "Bocuse obsession" - a passion that other chefs like Denmark's Rasmus Kofoed have shared - is only getting stronger.
Being back on the top step of the podium for a second consecutive competition has made the chef of Norwegian and Filipino heritage no less humble, and it's clear he doesn't take it for granted. “Actually, we had a goal to be on the podium, but we had never imagined we would be on the top, because of the situation we are facing,” he explains.
The win has had time to sink in though, and he reflects on the support he's had. “It feels incredible, all the hard work... it’s just unbelievable, It has been a really special time during this situation that we are facing, but I had a really great team and great support from the Norwegian people and everyone has been really nice to me regarding this competition, so it has been a good thing to be here.”
This year’s competition was far from ordinary, with only 16 competing teams, instead of 19, inside a remarkably quiet Saku Arena. The contest was devoid of the usual riotous noise that Bocuse d'Or supporters normally bring, owing to coronavirus safety measures. Norway usually has hundreds of flag-waving supporters, who Pettersen says make a “heart beating noise" that "gives you chills.” Reflecting on this year’s comparative quiet, he says: “It feels really strange, but I knew they were following from home. In my heart they are there always.”
Instead, a slew of extra protocols and ever-shifting competition dates took a toll on the team’s preparation. “It affected us quite a lot. The competition has been postponed several times, we had to re-think our calendar so many times during this time. It hasn’t been so simple to plan the year. We used a lot of energy and effort in this situation. Finally, we arrived in Tallinn and it was all credit to Bocuse d’Or and the organisation in Estonia. It was really well-planned and all the protocols during Covid were really taken care of.”
This year’s competition plate theme of catfish, a fish local to Estonia, was also a challenge for team Norway, as well as for many of the other competing European teams and judges. It's a fish Pettersen describes as very neutral in taste, with it’s own character, and a texture a little like a cross between an eel and a fish from the cod family. “It was my first time [cooking with it], so it was a fun, but really challenging to find the right texture, taste, and flavours."
The team eventually presented a charred Estonian catfish dish glazed in brown butter with lemon and horseradish with an aromatic Hardangerfjord apple vinaigrette. "Eventually we took a gamble to go for a minimalist restaurant feeling on the dish, and I feel we managed that,” he says.
The team also adapted their platter from the 2018 competition to save costs in their budget, presenting a 'trilogy of Estonian quail' on a re-design of their 2018 idea. "You know what the ingredient is and you know the temperature and flavour you want to combine with this main ingredient."
In characteristic form, Pettersen is not resting on his laurels and already thinking thinking about a few tweaks he'll work on in the next eight months. "I think the flavours and the composition of the dishes and some new things we pulled off, the temperature and things like that, we managed well. But we have to do something better with the garnishes for the world final."
Pettersen and his teammates (commis Even Strandbråten Sørum, coach Gunnar Hvarnes and president Tom Victor Gausdal) train for approximately 3000 hours each year and are a formidable force on the Bocuse circuit. Coach Hvarnes took bronze in the world final of the Bocuse d'Or in 2011, and was Christopher W. Davidsen's coach when he won silver in both the 2016 European Finals and the 2017 World Cup finals in Lyon. Coach Hvarnes is the chef in Norway with the most competitions on his CV, while Gausdal is president of the team, and has also been one of the competition's 16 taste judges. Gausdal also won a silver medal in the 2005 world final, beaten by France by only a single point.
Back in Norway, away from the bright arena lights, Pettersen has created his own training studio. It's a competition kitchen with the same layout as the kitchens used in the live event. It’s here that he spends more waking hours than at home, so it’s important that he creates strong bonds within his team. “We are not a team because we work together, we are a team because we respect and care for each other. We are like one big happy family… we make each other so much better."
Pettersen was a winner in the S.Pellegrino Young Chef Grand Final in 2015 and values the act of mentorship for future generations of young chefs, so much so that he's absorbed some of Norway's best young chefs into his team. “I have some new young chefs in the team now and they will be the next generation. I want them to see what we are doing and make sure that the next generation is secured. They are pushing really well, pushing me, making me think about things and making me good, and I’m making them good,” he says.
Pettersen's ambitions don't start and finish outside of the Bocuse d'Or though. In the future he has plans to create his own restaurant and start with an upcoming project, which he’s keeping under wraps for now. “Time will tell,” he says.
For the moment, he's thinking ahead to the Bocuse d’Or grand final, and the road to Lyon on 2 June 2021. "It's going to be a bumpy ride," he says, thinking about the changing obstacles presented by the coronavirus pandemic. He's also very aware of his closest rivals. “Of course, the Scandinavians are really strong and have a unique kitchen and they are really clever and pushing it really hard. France as well is a really great nation with a lot of culture and heritage of food. France is always good.”
Regarding what's yet to come, when a total of 24 countries will be going for gold in the grand final, he's level-headed, and even more mature in his approach as a seasoned competitor. “So we have to re-organise all the time, but that’s the situation we are facing, so we have to have respect for that. First things first, and that’s health and taking care of each other.”
If that's good sportsmanship, then Pettersen is already living proof of the Bocuse d'Or spirit. But it's something he carries with him, as he says: “Bocuse d’or will always have a part of my life."