We Chat With Chef Gavin Kaysen of Café Boulud
"I wish I could bottle up that energy and the intensity and passion carried by every single person in that stadium for the Bocuse d'Or... it's so loud, it's so energetic, everybody's so happy to be there, you can just feel the sense of pride. You're representing your country—it's a huge deal."
Along with having won a slew of awards and heading up the kitchen as Chef de Cuisine at Cafe Boulud, Chef Gavin Kaysen is the coach for the 2013 United States Bocuse d'Or team. Don't break into a sweat if you don't know what that is.
Many food loving Americans are unaware of the culinary equivalent of Olympic competition that happens every two years in Lyon, France, with teams from 24 countries competing side-by-side. In 2007 Kaysen competed in three national competitions for the spot and then spent time in France working with that year's ingredient, poulet de Bresse, and learning how to nail a ballontine from a master charcuterie maker to include in his dish. He then prepared the meat and a fish platter stadium-style in 5 1/2 hours with a thousand fans screaming alongside the other teams. These they presented to the jury of 24 judges—the presidents of each country's Bocuse d'Or foundation.
Back then there wasn't much of a U.S. foundation at all. That changed when he came home with a loss (we've never won the gold) and expressed a desire to change the way we play the game. Now a culinary council of some of the country's best chefs (many, naturally, from our fair city) are behind Chef Richard Rosendale and his commis Corey Siegel as they represent the United States January 30th.
As Chef Kaysen points out, we have a long way to go in showing support and enthusiasm on par with the rest of the world. But for now he's focused on making sure Richard and Corey are on the top of their game, and bringing the excitement and joy he feels at these competitions home.
Winning a cooking competition in Paris brought you as a spectator to your first Bocuse d'Or. What was so striking about it? You're sitting in this arena with thousands of people cheering like it's the Super Bowl... and it's just cooking—it blew me away that it could be that. It became something I was addicted to. I love the idea of being able to sit down and dwell on the same dish over and over again and make it better.
Was that the most joyful part for you as a competitor? It was the process itself. You go from being a cook to this point where you're elevated on an international scale; you're given an opportunity to shine and succeed. When I travel around the world I can't tell you how many times the chef or sous chef will come out at a restaurant and say, "I was in the Bocuse when you were there, I was a commis"; now it's eight years later and he's a sous chef. It's so crazy to see that sort of international family and how big it really is. And that's kind of the joy it always brought me.
And what about here at home? My commis—Brandon Rogers—is now the Chef de Cuisine at Benu in San Francisco. I remember when Brandon and I were coming back and we were so bummed that we lost; we poured our hearts and souls into this stuff and then came back empty handed.
And I pointed out that even if we had won, nobody would know. Nobody writes about this stuff—it wouldn't have made a difference. So it would have been great, but would it have changed anything?
I was at a wedding in Norway years ago and I was sitting next to this guy and he said, "What do you do in America?" And I said, "I'm a cook." And he said, "Well, I have a very good friend who's a chef here in Norway. He's very famous because he won the Bocuse d'Or; do you know what that is?" And I said, "yeah, I competed in the Bocuse d'Or for the United States in 2007." And he said, "Well then, you're very famous too!" And I said, "It doesn't work like that!!"
Oh, that's lovely! Isn't that funny? There's just such a different understanding of it. He couldn't understand why it wasn't the same.
So what was the catalyst that did evoke change, then? In retrospect, losing forced us to develop the whole group of culinary council members we have today. I remember having an interview with the San Diego Union Tribune food writer, Maria, and she said, "Gavin, if you could change anything, what would it be?" I said, "You know, the best thing that could happen is if we could get a group of chefs involved in this competition. Could you imagine sitting in a room with Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud and Charlie Trotter, talking about how to make the United States better?" One year later we were literally in a room with Daniel and Thomas.
High five! Yeah, it was crazy. That's been rewarding for me to see.
You said earlier that you and Brandon were bothered by the "way" you lost. Did something particularly horrid happen? We got 14th place. We never knew they would give you a placement after 5th. I'd rather have not known. It was a very Ben Stiller moment where we were supposed to put "14th Place" on our refrigerator!
Have we placed better since the founding of the council? We've placed 6th, we've done 10th; we've just missed the formula to win.
How is training different this year? This year I have two assistant coaches—Gabriel Kreuther from the Modern and Grant Achatz from Alinea. Gabriel has a very strict European palate—he's very disciplined. So when we taste something we look at him and say, "what are the judges going to say here?" Then Grant has a very classic foundation but thinks of food very, very differently. And he's somebody who brings to the table, "Why don't we approach it like this?" And it gets everybody thinking.
So for our training sessions with Richard we would literally sit in rooms and just talk for hours about one ingredient; what we could do with that ingredient, how we could manipulate it, and what that was going to change for the experience of the judges. We also look at it as if there are twelve tops out there and if we're able to give them the experience of a lifetime, how do we do that?
And how do you do that? As the candidate you have to put out the food that's the most personal to you. These judges taste food every eight-to-ten minutes—you almost need to give them this "aha!" moment.
What are you trying to instill the most in Richard? The one goal that I have is to make sure that Richard is comfortable, relaxed, and confident going into that competition, as well as his commis Corey. And I think Richard's in a good state of mind; he's feeling confident in his dish, which is great.
You've said this competition is a hard sell to the media. Heart-string to heart-string, why do you feel more people should be connected to it? The biggest thing is it's a way to make the culinary community better. We're basically giving them an opportunity they wouldn't otherwise get. They deserve it; they've earned it, they've gone after it and been at the right place at the right time. If we get a gold medal and we win it's just a bonus. Corey will be able to go wherever he wants after this; he can take a job anywhere. And I think that's what's exciting; to inspire this culinary youth to be stronger and better.
I wish I could bottle up that energy and the intensity and passion carried by every single person in that stadium for the Bocuse d'Or—the fans, the media, the chefs, the candidates, the commis, everybody that's there—because it's the most addictive feeling you've ever had in your life. It's so loud, it's so energetic, everybody's so happy to be there, you can just feel the sense of pride; you're representing your country, it's a huge deal.
What of the Bocuse d'Or do you bring back to Café Boulud? To give you an example, there's this picture of Daniel's parents' farm; the original Café Boulud, built in 1900. I always found it extremely powerful to go there. I'd go there to pick up equipment, then sit down to a four-hour lunch with his parents and siblings. We sit down and have some wine and some charcuterie that his dad made. We have a leg of lamb or a stuffed pumpkin or something that his mom has made. And then we finish off with a little homemade limoncello. And to tell you the experience of sitting in that room...the table that we sit at was once the front door to the Café Boulud.
As I was driving away one time I thought. "I have to figure out a way to translate this experience to everybody. They have to understand that this is the reason we take care of people—hospitality in its truest and purest form." So I came back home and I blew up a picture of the house And I handed out a piece of paper to every single person at Café Boulud and I said, "Write down what hospitality means to you." And 99.9% of every employee wrote down "house" or "home."
So we created what we now call the "house of hospitality," which was ultimately driven by Daniel's ancestors, passed onto his parents, and passed along to him. When I can bring that sense of hospitality back to Café Boulud...I find that so meaningful.