I just spent an intensive weekend with the CIA. That’s the Culinary Institute of America, not the Central Intelligence Agency. So, to clarify further, I was in Hyde Park, NY, rather than Langley, VA, and I was happy to be present at the CIA where the food may be grilled but the “guests” are not. My partner, Rodney Bedsole, a food photographer and blogger, was invited to a culinary competition as a VIP, courtesy of KitchenAid, and I went along for the ride and, as a writer, to broaden my experiences. What a ride it turned out to be; the weekend was amazing. I make no claims to being a chef or even a decent cook, but I do appreciate good food and know the basics. Which is why a certain incident was all the more embarrassing—but more about that later.
The contest was the Bocuse d’Or USA 2012 competition, and it was as exciting and as much of a ruckus—complete with cowbells—as any sporting event I’ve ever attended. The tools of the trade included what seemed like tons of arcane kitchen paraphernalia and products, from All-Clad and KitchenAid equipment to Bragard chef coats and Bridor artesian breads. More than a dash of French peppered the air in the event hall, seasoning the spoken English. Added to that was a generous helping of food-related argot, presumably in English, that I’m still trying to decipher.
Never did I detect any sense of condescension or feel left out. And about that French—the event is named for Chef Paul Bocuse, who, along with GL events, “created the Bocuse d’Or World Cuisine Contest in 1987 in order to broaden the public’s understanding of the extraordinary dedication, hard work, practice and precision required to execute the very finest cuisine.” Sixty national selections get chopped down to 24 countries that make the final cut. The United States 2012 preliminary event determined the U.S. winner for the upcoming 2013 world competition. It was hosted on the Hyde Park CIA campus on January 27 and 28. The apex event is held every two years in Lyon, France.
Three internationally renowned chefs preside over the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation, the organization responsible for U.S. participation. Thomas Keller, Chef /Owner of New York’s Per Se and The French Laundry of Napa Valley fame, is president of the Foundation. Daniel Boulud, Chef/Owner of New York City’s Daniel, among other great restaurants, is chairman. The foundation’s mission statement says it aims “to build a sustainable community of young American chefs who are knowledgeable and confident in their career pursuits and will be life-long ambassadors of quality and excellence in the world of gastronomy.” The foundation backs up those words with educational scholarships and internships, as well as through access to their Culinary Council consisting of established professionals.
What is now the main campus of a worldwide enterprise—the CIA—has its roots in New Haven, CT, from where it moved in 1972 to accommodate a burgeoning enrollment. I found the Hyde Park campus to be lovely, even here in the depths of winter, hugging as it does a rolling, wooded bank of the Hudson River. Today’s expansive main campus is a 170-acre tract that incorporates the former Jesuit novitiate (seminary) St. Andrew-on-Hudson. And it looks the part of a distinguished, if smallish, university. The Hyde Park institution offers bachelors-level degrees on grounds with facilities comprising 41 kitchens and bakeshops, five public restaurants, lecture halls, demonstration theaters, computer labs and a grand culinary library. Most students—80%—live on campus. The alumni network is 43,000 strong. Dr. Tim Ryan, a 1977 graduate and president of the CIA, says, “Food is our passion and hospitality our way of life.” I experienced both—passion through the great food, and hospitality of the people during my visit. I have two examples to share.
The first example—and now we revisit that embarrassing incident that I referenced earlier—came from an encounter I had with Chef Thomas Keller. One of the many tables exhibiting exquisite foods prepared and served by students experienced a lull in attendance. I moved into line just as Chef Keller chose to do the same. Each of us tried to defer to the other, but he insisted that I go first.
No, no. You first, Chef,” he said cheerfully.
I was awestruck and too tongue-tied to correct him. Besides, who corrects a world-renowned chef on anything? I grabbed a plate and proceeded to make a few selections from the meats, cheeses, dips, and breads. I topped off my masterpiece with two falafels shaped like large coins.
“What’s that?” he asked me good-naturedly, apparently not expecting to see falafels in that form.
Although I love the fare and I’d had falafels many times since moving to New York City, consider that a word like falafels doesn’t just roll off the tongue of a Southern boy. This turned out to be especially true as I stood there dumbfounded—and I’m afraid that on this occasion Chef Keller indeed must have found me dumb. I answered haltingly, mispronouncing the word by accenting the final syllable so as to say, “fa-fel-ELs.”
“Pardon?” he inquired, leaning closer to hear me over the chattering, the cheering, and the cowbelling of the current competitive heat. I tried again, “fa-fa-ELs.” Sadly, wrong again.
“Fa-LA-fels” inserted the server with a gentle smile and, thankfully, no hint of sarcasm.
I took my charcuterie and my goats’ cheese and my flatbread and my falafels and headed for a quiet corner to lick my wounds and my plate. My fiasco not withstanding, that man—that exquisite chef—has real presence. He cares and I felt it. He’s genuine.
Which leads me to my second example of true hospitality. I learned that Dr. Ryan’s wife, who is also a CIA alumnus, was at the event and that she is from Alabama, near Birmingham. My partner is from nearby Huntsville, AL, and I lived there for many years prior to moving to New York. We had to meet her. Walking to the area where we’d been told she was observing the contest, I scanned the crowd and spied someone I thought looked the part—a lovely, golden-haired lady standing by and chatting confidently among a group of people. After confirming with a server that I’d selected the right person, I politely made introductions.
“Hi. I’m Larry. This is Georgia and Rodney. Georgia is not from Georgia, but Rodney’s from Alabama, and I’m from Tennessee. We hear you are from Alabama, as well, so we had to meet you.”
I found Lynne Ryan to be open and as charming as any Southern lady could hope to be. We had a great conversation around food, food blogging, and her business enterprise, Chefs to Dine For.
Now, the envelope please.
The four contestants and their commis (assistant) who competed for the honor of representing the United States at the Bocuse d’Or Lyons 2013 competition were (in order of final standings):
- FIRST PLACE – GOLD
Richard Rosendale, The Greenbrier, Executive Chef, White Sulphur Springs, WV
Commis: Corey Siegel, The Greenbrier, Jr. Apprentice
- SECOND PLACE — SILVER
Jeffrey Lizotte, ON20, Chef de Cuisine, Hartford, CT
Commis: Kevin Curley, Cornell Hotel School, Student
- THIRD PLACE — BRONZE
William Bradley, Le Cordon Bleu, Chef Instructor, Southboro, MA
Commis: James Haibach, Le Cordon Bleu, Graduate
- FOURTH PLACE
Danny Cerqueda, Carolina Country Club, Executive Sous Chef, Raleigh, NC
Commis: Marianne Elyse Warrick, Johnson & Wales, Student