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With the Stars and Stripes draped across his shoulders and with his arms around his teammates, his cheeks flushed with elation, Mathew Peters looks every inch the conquering culinary Olympian.
And he has much to be proud of: he’s the first US chef to be awarded the coveted gold at the world’s most prestigious gastronomy competition, the Bocuse d’Or 2017 sponsored by S.Pellegrino, and he did it in style, topping the leaderboard of 24 nations, defeating a host of exceptionally strong chefs in the process, including from hosts France, the Nordic countries and Japan.
He’s gone one better than Philip Tessier, who achieved silver for the US in 2015, and this could be the first of many successes he feels. “This is just one step, we [the USA team] belong up here; we belong in the realms of everybody else here. This just proves that we are here to stay,” he says, beaming, as his teammates nod enthusiastically.
It’s this pride that informed his winning dishes: Bresse chicken stuffed with morel sausage, foie gras and crawfish and a 100% vegan plate of California green asparagus with toasted almond custard. The brief referenced the typical Lyon chicken and crayfish served at the very first Bocuse d’Or in 1987 and similarly, Peters looked back for his dishes: “The inspiration for the dishes came from where I’ve come from: from New York to California. I wanted to bring something that was all American. And that’s what we did,” he says.
That journey has taken him from the kitchens of Alain Ducasse’s Adour, through the two jewels of the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, The French Laundry (something else he has in common with Tessier) and Per Se, where he is currently Executive Sous Chef. Was there a last minute pep talk from coach before the biggest service of his life, inside a cavernous exhibition space on the outskirts of Lyon? “Stay true to what you do. You’ve practiced hard; you’re at this point. Let’s do our thing, ” he says.
The big boss, Thomas Keller, is just to the right of Peters in the huddle as we speak, and it’s clear when Keller talks, just how important this project is to him, and how vital he feels it is to the future of US gastronomy, coming so soon after the USA’s win at S.Pellegrino Young Chef late last year. There’s a new confidence about US cooking – chefs there feel they can easily compete with the established European masters now, if not better them.
“There are no words to describe how proud we are,” says Keller. “When we started this almost nine years ago we promised Monsieur Paul [Bocuse] that we would get gold. I’m really, really proud today that we’re able to honour him.”
Team USA is very much a “We” and Peters is quick to thank his colleagues, nay friends, including commis Harrison Turrone, when praise is proffered in his direction. “I want to thank all these guys right here, every single one of them. You can’t do it without them. We’re going to celebrate as a team now ... maybe take a nap first ... then Disneyland!!”
Everyone laughs. Disneyland – how all American is that?
All images, except top photo: Le Fotographe