Despite our ever-growing fascination with food, the legendary Bocuse d’Or competition represents little more than a culinary footnote for most Americans, and given our taste for competition-based cooking, these circumstances can be somewhat puzzling. While many Americans could easily name several of the past “cheftestants” on Bravo’s “Top Chef “series, I would wager that less than 1% of Americans could name Team USA’s most recent representative at the Boscuse d’Or (or any of our past representatives, for that matter). Of course, the Bocuse d’Or’s lack of exposure here in the United States accounts for much of our national indifference. But while there may be a latent interest in the world’s most famous culinary competition, I still can’t help but wonder if the Bocuse d’Or will ever become anything more than the “soccer” of our culinary landscape.
I hate to sound so skeptical, but while reading “Knives at Dawn” by Andrew Friedman, I couldn’t help but notice the uncanny analogy between the Bocuse d’Or and soccer’s World Cup: On a broad scale, both events have wild international appeal, yet they garner only a passing, slow-growing interest here in the United States. At best, both events are intermittent curiosities for most Americans, championed only by an impassioned minority (the World Cup, celebrated every four years; the Bocuse d’Or, celebrated every two). Even with the help of increased publicity, it could very well be that most Americans may just never “get” the appeal of international culinary competitions. We haven’t ever really “gotten” soccer, either, despite hosting the World Cup in 1994.
And why is that? Why are we so tepid about some things, while the rest of the world is so unabashedly avid? Well, looking at the history of the World Cup and the Bocuse d’Or, the United States has never won either competition, which may further explain our national indifference: When we don’t perform well, we tend to lose interest, and mediocrity will never grab the headlines here in America. But quite frankly, it’s not just that the USA hasn’t won either event. It really runs a bit deeper than that: Our respective National Teams have never even seen the podium in either event, aside from a 3rd-place World Cup finish in 1930 (which incidentally, was the very first World Cup, and only featured 13 teams).
Since that auspicious beginning, Team USA’s best World Cup result is an eighth-place finish in 2002, our first and only top-10 result since 1930. And keep in mind, these marginal victories are a recent phenomenon: From 1954 to 1986, the USA failed to even qualify for the World Cup, missing nine consecutive competitions during four decades of utter soccer futility. America’s pattern of success is similar in the Bocuse d’Or: Since the competition’s beginning in 1987, the United States has placed no better than sixth among the 12 teams competing, although both of these “top-half” finishes occurred in 2005 and 2009. Much like our World Cup results, our Bocuse d’Or results aren’t nearly as bleak as they were before, but they’re still nothing to write home about; we may have gained a modicum of respect in recent years, but we’ve never threatened to become the team to beat.
And perhaps we’re never destined to become that team, even though in theory, the Bocuse d’Or should be well within our grasp. In “Knives at Dawn,” Friedman points out that Team USA typically lacks the resources that many European teams enjoy, namely: The months of free time to prepare. Set against the backdrop of the 2009 Bocuse d’Or, Friedman’s book chronicles the hectic uphill journey of American chef Timothy Hollingsworth, who prepared for the competition while maintaining his regular work schedule as sous chef at the French Laundry. This sort of rigorous juggling act would be unheard of among most of the European teams, and under the circumstances, Hollingsworth’s sixth-place finish was admirable, even if the chef himself felt pangs of disappointment at the results.
As a culinary text, “Knives at Dawn” finds its strength in telling the backstory of its subjects, and by bringing the personalities surrounding Team USA to life. Luminaries such as Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud factor heavily into the plot, and Hollingsworth’s own professional journey will prove interesting to anyone who has wondered how a chef gets his start. In addition, readers will not only gain insight into the unique culture of the Bocuse d’Or, but the mystique of the French Laundry, such an integral part of Hollingsworth’s own personal fabric, is revealed as well. My main criticism of “Knives at Dawn” — if I must level one — is that the book could have really benefited from photos of the competition plates, which despite Friedman’s detailed descriptions, lack the clarity they deserve.