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Works That Work, No.2,

Smuggler Chefs

by Barbara Eldredge (2307 words)

Success in this prestigious international competition depends not only on the chefs’ culinary skills, but also on their smuggling techniques.

Cover photo: To highlight culinary diversity, contestant chefs are encouraged to incorporate their national heritages into their creations, so most chefs bring local ingredients in specially designed coolers. In these photos, the US team’s Richard Rosendale unpacks herbs brought in from Huron, Ohio. (Photo: Bonjwing Lee)

In mid-January of 1971, when the legendary chef Paul Bocuse arrived in the US to prepare a dinner for 12 at the Four Seasons Hotel, he waltzed through customs with suitcases brimming with flour, salt, chickens, tarragon, bay leaves, crayfish, petits fours, truffled sausage, tomatoes, green beans, cream, butter, foie gras, woodcocks, a wild duck, sauce base in plastic bags, two kilos of truffles, and fresh pig bladders. These last prized ingredients, according to an account by food critic Gael Greene, were hidden in the sleeves of a jacket deep in his luggage beneath layers of Bocuse’s underwear.

The art of the culinary smuggle is as inextricably entwined with the art of French cooking as Bocuse’s ingredients were that day intermingled with his boxers. Years later, when Bocuse founded an international culinary competition, he did more than further the global prestige of fine cuisine: he became the muse of a covert craft—that of spiriting foods from the market or garden of one country and onto the plates of another.

Today, the Bocuse d’Or is the World Cup, Olympics, and Super Bowl of culinary competitions. Some chefs train for years, working towards their goal of standing on the winner’s podium holding the trophy: a golden figurine of Paul Bocuse poised atop the globe. Every two years, hundreds of brilliant chefs from more than 50 countries all over the globe compete in gruelling qualifying rounds to earn the privilege of representing their country at the finals in Lyon, France. In the ensuing months, these select chefs and their supporting organisations spend innumerable hours and thousands or even hundreds of thousands, of dollars to prepare. (This year, the American chef Richard Rosendale famously built a precise replica of the Bocuse competition kitchen so he could practice cooking in the space).

The rules of the Bocuse d’Or are akin to those of Iron Chef in that all contestants have five and a half hours to prepare one meat dish and one fish dish, with primary ingredients dictated by the Bocuse organisation. ‘It’s like asking da Vinci to paint the Mona Lisa in five and a half hours,’ said Angela May, who has served as the competition’s English-speaking emcee for the past several years. ‘The food is incredible, like nothing you would see in a normal dining experience. When the plates are finally finished and presented, you can hear the audience gasp.’

Last June, it was announced that the central meat ingredient would be oxtail. A mere eight weeks before the competition, chefs learned that the fish plates would feature turbot and lobster. Both meals would be accompanied by at least three different garnishes, elaborately plated. This year’s contest featured a few rule tweaks to foster risk-taking and creativity. Two of the garnishes were to be made using ingredients selected the night before in a specially created Bocuse market. A third garnish would evoke the chefs’ home country to ‘illustrate their chefs’ culinary heritage and encourage diversity’. On the day of the event, each chef is allotted a fully equipped kitchen cubicle open to the prying eyes of press, judges and fans. The chefs bring their own serving platters, specialised cooking equipment and all of the food ingredients not supplied by the competition.

International chefs travelling with their delicacies know that French customs officials are relatively lax compared to their American or Asian counterparts.

(Photo: Bonjwing Lee)

In late January, when the chosen 24 contestant-chefs converged in Lyon for the 14th biannual competition, they surreptitiously imported vegetable and meat stocks, home-grown spices, fruits and specially sourced dairy and eggs from their home nations. For Heidi Pinnak, the chef of Team Estonia, it was easy to bring the Estonian vegetables, cranberries, apples, potatoes, quail eggs, cream, butter and Vana Tallinn liqueur she would use in her Bocuse cuisine. ‘All my Estonian products travelled with two drivers from Tallinn to Lyon,’ she wrote in a recent email. ‘Estonia has always followed the principle of introducing local tastes.’

When Pinnak’s meat platter was finally finished, her supporters blew foghorns and frantically waved the blue, black and white tricolour of Estonia. In spite of the haute-cuisine character of the competition and refined discipline of the competing chefs, the auditorium is bedlam. Hundreds of supporters cram onto risers opposite the chefs’ kitchens and yell with the raucous abandon of half-drunk soccer fans. They wear colourful team-themed garb and wave flags and painted banners. They make such an incredible amount of noise that many chefs feel obliged to train with speakers blaring the earsplitting soundtrack of past audiences. The crowd blows foghorns and hits cowbells in a cacophony of sound. These audience antics are an element dating back to 1997, the first year that supporters of Team Mexico brought a mariachi band to enliven their chef’s time in the kitchen.

Among the ingredients brought to Lyon this year by Chef Miguel Quezada from his native Mexico were vanilla, cactus fruit liquor, fresh cornflour, fried pork skin, multicoloured cocoa beans, and hoja santa, an aromatic heart-shaped leaf used to wrap tamales. Quezada learned his simple smuggling technique from a friend. He told me, ‘You only need to wrap the products with black clothes and put them in your luggage as any other article of clothing. I’ve never had problems.’

For the American team, bringing many of their own ingredients from the United States was not a poetic gesture but a strategic one. The American chef Richard Rosendale readily acknowledged that ‘an American egg that is almost industrially produced will not cook the same as a French egg where the chicken eats different things according to the seasons’. It would be suicide for any chef to compete using ingredients whose characteristics were unfamiliar to him. Rosendale used duct tape and Styrofoam to create a custom cooler in his suitcase to protect ingredients like frozen cooking stocks en route to France. He vacuum packaged his clothes so they would fit in the small space not occupied by ingredients and tools.

In 2009, the American team brought practically all of their produce, including turnips, celery, broccolini, avocados, leeks, oranges, carrots and cabbage, from their restaurant’s garden in Yountville, California. According to Andrew Friedman’s account of the 2009 competition, Knives At Dawn, ‘Somehow the team sailed right through customs without a single interrogative challenge to their mountain of luggage. It must have been because it was Bocuse d’Or season, as young cooks roll into town every other January with similarly massive hauls.’

Granted, international customs rules can be mind-numbingly convoluted. It took this writer several hours of online digging, phone calls to two French embassies and three departments of des Douanes (French Customs) to find a website purported to reveal the legal status of edible imports. The writer was greeted with a practically unusable system of codes and inputs that baffled even her French translator. Thankfully, for those participating in the Bocuse d’Or, this confusion does not deter, and unlike the perpetually vigilant US customs authorities, des Douanes is notoriously lax.

Perhaps it is the dearth of pernicious fruit flies or non-native fungi due to such imports. Or maybe it is because the French understand the powerful impact of place on the food it creates. A key tenet of the French culinary tradition is the concept of terroir: that a food’s place of origin profoundly alters its quality and characteristics. Terroir is why French eggs vary with the seasons, why American flour is more glutinous, and why the Sri Lankan chef Buddhika Samarasekara was determined to bring his own crab from Colombo.

Samarasekara fretted about just how Sri Lankan to make his cuisine. Remaining true to the fare of his home country would mean serving food far too spicy for the sensitive European palates of the 24 Bocuse judges.

Each team consists of three people: a lead chef, a sous-chef, and a coach. They have five hours and 35 minutes to prepare two elaborate presentations, a meat dish and a fish dish, in a open kitchen facing the jury, media and a screaming audience of about 1000. (Photo: Bonjwing Lee)

When chef Samarasekara arrived in Shanghai for the Asian finals in June, contraband-sniffing dogs yelped at the box containing, among other ingredients, his carefully packed Sri Lankan crab. The authorities confiscated integral components of the cuisine he was to cook the next day. Remarkably, in a moment of near-clairvoyance, he’d anticipated trouble and outmanoeuvred Chinese customs. ‘I packed a second set of ingredients in my luggage,’ he told me. ‘Just put it in my clothes, and they missed it.’ Samarasekara went on to win fourth place in the Asian finals, securing a spot in Lyon. Nervous about having to pull the same stunt in France, he spoke with Bocuse officials. ‘They told me not to worry,’ he recalled. On judging day, the Sri Lankan aubergines on Samarasekara’s fish plates were stuffed with Sri Lankan crab.

Of the past 13 Bocuse d’Or competitions, Norway has been on the podium eight times; Sweden, five times. France has been on the podium ten times and won gold in seven, including the most recent contest. This year was only the second time in the competition’s history that an Asian team even made it to the podium. Chef Noriyuki Hamada, who won third place, is the Executive Chef of Hotel Bleston Court, a French restaurant in Karuizawa, Japan.

‘I think France often wins because of the culture,’ Angela May told me. ‘They grow up knowing who Paul Bocuse is and have a deep-seated knowledge and passion for food and cuisine.’ But economics is also a factor. Teams have differing amounts of resources and time. Denmark has already chosen the chef that will compete in the next Bocuse d’Or Europe, the preliminary round to get to Lyon in 2015. He now has time to formulate his ideas and concepts. This year, Mexico’s chef Quezada had only a few months after winning the qualifying round in Mexico to perfect his oxtail pyramid for the finals.

The US coach Gavin Kaysen, who was a Bocuse competitor in 2007, told me that the French ‘definitely have a home field advantage. It’s also easier to ship ingredients from France to Norway.’ In other words, chefs able to use French ingredients in their everyday cooking benefit from not having to worry about the national differences between chickens, sour creams, or asparaguses.

I asked Kaysen if it was because of the ingredients that the French seem to always win the Bocuse d’Or. He told me no. ‘France does so well because it is a French competition built on French techniques and tastes. Mexico did really beautiful stuff with their food. But they took 24th place because the judges are not able to understand the flavours.’

Several years ago, Kaysen was bringing bags of flour back to the US from France (French flour makes a less glutinous dough). He didn’t think anything of it until one of the four bags burst in transit, spilling a fine white powder all over Kaysen’s suitcase. ‘It was during the anthrax scare,’ he recalled, ‘and I knew it did not look good so I just walked right up to the first customs guy I saw and explained the whole story: “Honest to God, it’s only flour”. He was cool about it and let me go through.’

Asked if it was more important to obey customs laws or to cook good food, Kaysen paused for a moment before answering. ‘I’ll just say this: you have to do what you have to do to win.’

Barbara Eldredge is a design writer and researcher based in New York. She has written for New York Magazine, Metropolis and Core77 among other publications.

This article comes from Works That Work magazine, No.2.
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