During a September training session for what will be his most challenging competition, Gavin Kaysen was struggling with a crucial technique. Failing to nail it, he realized, likely would prevent him from ascending the victor’s podium. He therefore spent a day training with an expert to master the skill making a foie gras and chicken liver mousse. Then he was ready to move on to perfecting his halibut tart.
Kaysen, the 27-year-old chef de cuisine of El Bizcocho restaurant in the Rancho Bernardo Inn in San Diego, Calif., will represent the United States at the Bocuse d’Or World Cuisine Contest, a biennial competition that will take place January 23 and 24 in Lyon, France. Established in 1987 by its namesake, French chef Paul Bocuse, one of the fathers of nouvelle cuisine, the contest this year will involve chefs from 24 nations cooking for a panel of judges. Each competitor designs and prepares a series of dishes around two main ingredients; this year’s items are Bresse chicken, a flavorful bird that is raised in France, and Norwegian white halibut. The panel assesses each of the dishes on its taste and presentation. Along with cash awards, the top three finishers receive trophies that depict Bocuse standing on a globe.
U.S. chefs have competed in the Bocuse d’Or since its inception, but none has won or even finished better than sixth place, which Hartmut Handke accomplished in 2003. Kaysen, who gained the right to represent America by winning the Bocuse d’Or USA last May in Chicago, is determined to place among the top three finishers at least. “I just know it’s something I have to do,” he says. “I’m the youngest American to do this. The stars are lined up for me to do it.”
In Lyon, Kaysen who secured his national victory with chicken and foie gras roulade with black truffle jus, tomato and fennel Napoleon, and poached potato with crayfish plans to make four chicken preparations, including a pot pie and barbecued wings, as well as the aforementioned halibut tart. “Technically, it’s extremely difficult to do the pastry and the fish at the same time,” he says of the latter dish, “but that’s why I chose it because it’s difficult.”
Kaysen’s determination is evident in his actions. Because Bresse chicken is not available in the United States (agriculture law prohibits its importation), Kaysen traveled to France twice for kitchen sessions with the bird. Also, since November, he has been practicing with a Convotherm by Cleveland Combi Oven-Steamer, the same oven that he will use in France.
Michel Bouit, executive director of the Bocuse d’Or USA, explains that while the oven is not particularly different from those that Kaysen employs at El Bizcocho, he will benefit from having had two months to familiarize himself with it. “You can’t learn how to react on the day of the competition,” he says. “It’s too late. Not long ago, I looked at the score sheets from 2003. Had [Handke] not slightly overcooked his fish dish, he probably would have made the podium.”
Bocuse d’Or, www.bocusedor.com
Rancho Bernardo Inn, 858.675.8500, www.ranchobernardoinn.com