That Thomas Keller chose the Bocuse d'Or USA Foundation as his beneficiary for the Robb Report Culinary Masters Competition should come as no surprise, given his conviction that each generation of American chefs should be greater than the one preceding it. The 5-year-old organization trains an American team of chefs for the Bocuse d'Or, the international competition named for legendary chef Paul Bocuse that is staged every two years in Lyon, France.
American chefs have been entering the competition since it started in 1987, but "we had never, ever gotten on the podium," Keller says, referring to the gathering place of the finalists. "We came up a doughnut. Zero."
In 2008, Bocuse himself called Keller and Daniel Boulud, suggesting a formal path to a potential gold medal: Give aspirants brutal training in competitive cooking to help them prove that the New World has caught up to the Old. "He got on the phone and said, 'You guys gotta do this. You can no longer have Americans be non-contenders in the Bocuse d'Or,' " Keller recalls. In 2009, the first American team that trained through the foundation placed sixth, the Americans' highest ranking to date. Not coincidentally, that team was made up of chefs from the French Laundry.
Chef trainers and trainees meet at such facilities as the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia and the Culinary Institute of America to cook, cook, and cook some more with the goal of elevating their cuisine to judge-dazzling levels. One of the rising-star chefs in last year's Culinary Masters Competition, Gavin Kaysen of Café Boulud in New York City, helped coach the 2013 team, which placed seventh out of 24 in Lyon. Currently, William Bradley serves as a culinary council member for the foundation.
"Some people ask what the big deal is—why we need to compete in Lyon," says Keller, who is president of the foundation. "I think we do. We have done so much more with our profession, and this is another level of accomplishment for our profession and for American chefs. It's a level of international respect."
Money raised for the Bocuse d'Or USA Foundation pays for the chefs' training, travel expenses, and ingredients. Beyond the competition, the organization also supports the training of and scholarships for young chefs around the country. Applications are now being solicited for the 2015 competition to draft chefs for the USA finals competition.
"It's important to bring awareness to what so many American chefs are working for," Keller says. "It's important to our profession and to our country." –Regina Schrambling