Practice Makes Parfait
By David Nelson
PARIS - The night they invented Champagne, Gavin Kaysen would have been back in the kitchen, cheerfully preparing canapes for the swells in the dining room. He likes kitchens. In the latter part of October, the 27-year-old El Bizcocho chef and his 21-year-old assistant, Brandon Rodgers, arrived early one morning in the City of Light and went straight to work at the Gregoire-Ferrandi cooking school in chic St. Germaine-des-Pres. With the exception of Sunday, the pair put in 10 solid days, repeatedly practicing the two dishes Kaysen is presenting in January as the United States representative at Bocuse d'Or, the top international cooking competition held every other year in Lyons.
No sightseeing for these two; no leisurely lunches at Tour d'Argent. Just 14-hour days that commenced before the tardy Paris dawn and concluded with quick 10 p.m. suppers near their hotel. (Since the school forbade a Sunday session, they did stand in line a couple of hours to ascend the Eiffel Tower, a concession made to the high Sierras-bred Rodgers by the Minnesota-born, altitude-hating Kaysen.)
All work and no play by no means made dullards of these boys. In Laboratoire 1, the fully equipped, restaurant-style kitchen Kaysen rented for about $250 per day, the two kept score in a basketball competition that progressed whenever one of them tossed some (often costly) leftover toward a saucepan in a far corner of the room. In a free moment, Rodgers created a mascot for the team by carving an eggplant into a tiki head and adding a frisson of chives for hair. Posed on a stainless-steel counter, the eggplant was named Bernard, in honor of the team's local coach, Bernard Le Prince. Not that he was necessarily let in on the joke: A heavy hitter in French culinary circles, Le Prince is corporate chef for the empire of 26 brasseries - the best-known would be Au Pied de Cochon in the former Les Halles district in central Paris - owned by the Blanc brothers.
"It's been a rocking time since we got here," said Kaysen on practice day five. "We had to create one more garnish for our halibut platter, so we designed 15 before we decided on the one we wanted.' In the language of Bocuse d'Or, the Concours Mondiale de Cuisine (Global Culinary Contest), the term 'garnish' does not indicate a parsley sprig or lemon wedge. Each of the 24 teams (China, Australia and Argentina are among a Europe-heavy list of contestants) must present two elaborately arranged platters to the 24 judges, the first built around an entree starring halibut and Norwegian crab, the second around a principal dish of Bresse chicken (like vintage wines, these costly beauties are raised in a strictly defined region in France).
With the counsel of Michel Bouit - a retired, classically trained French chef who now runs a consulting business in Chicago and is the U.S. point man for Bocuse d'Or - Kaysen and Rodgers invented dishes that combine French haute cuisine techniques with distinctly American flourishes, a few of which - like the barbecued chicken wings and baked beans used as one garnish for the chicken - seem worthy of P.T. Barnum.
IN AN ONGOING CONFERENCE over what might constitute the perfect stuffing for carved mini-pumpkins that will garnish the Bresse birds, the two cooks proposed adding raisins to the wild rice. Raisins, it was felt, would emphasize California. "Go for it, guys!" exclaimed Bouit. "It's perfect!" Bouit, it should be added, confidently expects Kaysen to take first place at the January 22-24 competition, a feat that technically would crown him the world's best chef. As the lone assistant, Rodgers would share in the glory.
The issue of raisins in the rice had no sooner reached resolution than a local fellow named Francois Caduret strolled quietly into the kitchen and unrolled a sheaf of sketches. A fourth-generation artisan silversmith, Caduret had been engaged to fabricate two sterling-silver platters, each shaped precisely to display the given dish - one platter for the halibut, one for the chicken - in the most flattering of poses. The cost? Oh, a mere bagatelle - just some $17,000, or somewhat more than 10 percent of the $150,000 that Kaysen anticipates to be the total tab for his entrance in Bocuse d'Or. The funds flow from a variety of corporate sponsors, including Kaysen's employer, the Rancho Bernardo Inn, which will gain considerable bragging rights if its young chef takes the prize in Lyons.
As he may. By the end of the marathon practice sessions in Paris, Kaysen had designed two intricate presentations, the first of them a halibut-and-crab torte bedded in lobster mousse, finished with sauce americain and surrounded by garnishes that include Maryland crab cakes with cocktail sauce. The tiniest chicken pot pies and even arrangements of bacon and eggs flank the Bresse chicken dish, a ballotine (a boned, extravagantly stuffed bird) finished with a black-truffle sauce. In the months since he won the right to represent the United States at Bocuse d'Or, Kaysen has prepared dozens of practice chickens. In January, he only has to make one.