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In 1987, when the legendary chef Paul Bocuse started his now infamous cooking competition, the Bocuse d’Or in Lyon, he had one simple intention: ‘highlight chef talent and excellence’. He invited 24 chefs from different countries to his hometown to compete over two particular themes: Plate and Platter - alongside a hand-picked, collared, starred and adored line-up of judges to taste and mark the contestant's food.
France won the first competition - thanks to chef Jacky Freon and his lightly caramelized fillet of red label turbot with reduced jus, peppers, fennel tops and sliced artichokes. Since then, every two years, without fail, 24 more chefs have arrived in Lyon, ingredients ready and months of practice under their belts. All for the hope of standing on the podium with the famous gold award of chef Bocuse thrust above their head.
The comp has crushed more than a few chefs, taken over lives, as the three-star Michelin chef and 1999 contestant Yannick Alleno explained: “When we started, you practiced at night, now you quit your job for two years.” It’s grueling and pressured, there’s a much bigger audience now, thousands of fans, hundreds of chefs behind the scenes, servers, waiters, the main mentors who taste and keenly watch time as chefs frantically whip, passe, beat, mold and create all manner of fancy. It takes a lot to win…
As the 2017 winner, Mathew Peters, explained:
It’s become the go-to competition for any chef who takes themselves seriously, but perhaps more importantly than that, it’s become a solid barometer of the world’s food landscape. During the 2019 event, which ended yesterday and was significantly marked by the loss of chef Bocuse in 2018, it was Denmark once again that took the gold spot, silver went to Sweden and bronze was awarded to Norway.
“A Nordic takeover”, roared one person in the rowdy crowd, but a quick look at the history of the previous winners and you’ll see that it was a lot more trickle to stream than overnight waterfall. Norway featured on the podium as far back as 1991, just two years later, in 1993 - long before the New Nordic Revolution - Norway was back again for gold with Denmark grabbing silver. Sweden rocked up in 1995 with Silver and then gold in 1997 with Mattias Dahlgreen and Bronze went again to Norway. You see the trend? In 1999 Norway was at it again for another gold spot, Iceland decided to get themselves into the race in 2001 with Bronze and Norway, never to be kept down, rocked back up in 2003 for another gold grab - three in total at that point for Norway. It’s like a Nordic game of culinary catch: in 2005, 2007 and 2011 - Danish chef Rasmus Kofoed got Bronze, Silver and Gold respectively.
In fact, since 1991, there has not been a contest where a Nordic chef didn’t take a podium spot. Put another way, out of 56 chefs who have taken podium places at Bocuse d’Or since it’s inception in 1987, 26 of them have been chefs representing Nordic countries. It’s a monstrous feat and perhaps why there was so much shock in the crowd at yet another full Nordic podium, they did the same in 2011, but for many standing there, it was expected.
Even though the theme of the competition changes every year, even though this year it was evidently French-leaning with a chartreuse themed plate and a veal platter based on the first ever 1987 competition with both themes asked to pay homage to Joel Robuchon and Paul Bocuse respectively - it was still the Nordics that stepped up to wow a jury that is also heavily French weighted, it’s as if they have some sort of secret recipe to Bocuse d’Or, or perhaps it was the Bocuse d'Or that more than 25 years ago predicted the now accepted Nordic influence on gastronomy.
With the gold statue of chef Bocuse still gripped firmly in his hand, 2019 winner, Kenneth Toft-Hansen, tried to answer. “Teamwork,” he said, “we all work together” - true, but that’s true of all 24 teams competing at the event. What’s the secret sauce? “I think you have to find the right balance between strong flavors, not too much acidity, bring a nice flavor combination. Then, of course, you have to make a nice presentation, make the food work on the platter as well as on the plate. The pressure is the hardest part of this, being here with all of your idols surrounding you, I think that’s the hardest part, staying focused as well, trying to improve.”
The 2019 Danish team celebrate under the watchful eyes of Bocuse...
There’s also an evident dose of perseverance required for the recipe to winning Bocuse d’Or. Just ask the U.S team who took bronze, silver and then gold - each year adding more elements, more ideas, more people to help their train bring home the prize. Or Rasmus Kofoed who admitted to having to end a six-year relationship because of his pursuit for perfection in the competition, “I felt sad, very sad because I really loved her, but in another way, I felt released and more free to give the competition 100% attention, instead of the 95% I used to,” he famously said.
“It’s a big relief,” said Toft-Hansen still standing on the highly earned podium spot, “this is my second time here.” He came sixth his first time around, “I was very disappointed. Now, coming in number one is amazing. Thank you for all the support, I think it was a team effort today, it was not two guys in the kitchen it was the whole Danish team who pulled this together.”
As with all secret recipes, it’s hard to pin down all the elements of the sauce, but the continued and consistent success of Denmark and their fellow Nordic countries on the podium at Bocuse d’Or is certainly something for the line of eager chefs waiting to compete from countries all over the world to study and seriously consider.
It's easy to say we want to do it better tomorrow but how do you improve 2 % every day? Kenneth Toft-Hansen.