04/02/2012 01:25 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2012

A Scouting Trip To Europe For The Bocuse d'Or

Gavin Kaysen is the head coach of the 2013 Bocuse d'Or U.S.A. team and represented the U.S. as a competitor in the 2007 Bocuse d'Or. The Bocuse d'Or, named after legendary chef Paul Bocuse, is the world's most challenging and prestigious culinary competition. It takes places in Lyon, France every other year and features chefs from 24 countries competing for the title.

On this recent scouting trip to the Bocuse d'Or Europe Finals in Brussels, Belgium, Kaysen was accompanied by chef Richard Rosendale and his commis (or assistant), Corey Siegel. Richard and Corey will be representing the U.S. at the 2013 Bocuse d'Or next January in Lyon. In addition to his Bocuse d'Or coaching duties, Gavin is the executive chef at Cafe Boulud in New York City.

Last week, Richard, Corey and I attended the Bocuse d'Or Europe finals, watching chefs from 19 European countries compete for 12 spots in next January's Bocuse d'Or finals in Lyon. The chefs assembled represented the best countries to compete in the Bocuse d'Or, historically, so the top three finishers in Europe will be the favorites going into the finals in Lyon.

While Richard and I had been to Europe many times, it was Corey's first trip and it was refreshing to see his excitement when we boarded the plane. He didn't care that he was in a middle seat or that the plane looked a little shabby and might have been put into service before he was born. He, like Richard, has a strong passion for competitive cooking, which is what is needed in abundance, along with a heck of a lot of talent, to get to the podium at the Bocuse d'Or. The U.S. has never placed higher than 6th in the Bocuse d'Or and we're, naturally, hoping to improve on that.

Prior to this trip, I thought the key to winning the Bocuse d'Or was to create the best tasting food as the majority of scoring is weighted toward taste. However, my thinking evolved after seeing the Swedish team compete on day one. (The Bocuse d'Or chefs from Scandinavia and France are the competitors you want to watch closely as combined they have won 12 out of the 13 Bocuse d'Or competitions.)

I noticed that Swedish chef Adam Dahlberg and his commis had an intense calm about them. No running around, no deer-in-the-headlights looks. Their kitchen counter and floor were immaculate, too, and their food looked as focused as their demeanor. While I didn't get to taste their food, I just knew it was excellent. In other words, watching how they created their food and conducted themselves reinforced how those factors contribute to the final taste of the food and the other non-taste-related dimensions of competing. Yes, the great flavors have to be there, but Richard and Corey can't overlook things like choosing the proper tools and maintaining a super clean space at all times. Those factors and others project a presence to the fans, judges and other competitors in attendance. It says, in effect: "We are in absolute control of all aspects of what we're doing."

It's fitting that Richard himself used the word presence, too, while describing the best teams here since he and Corey had that in abundance when they won the U.S. finals at The Culinary Institute of America back in January. Were you at that competition watching from the bleachers, based on the number of chefs, press and VIPs buzzing around their booth, it was obvious they were the front runners. Presence is not something that we (myself and fellow Bocuse d'Or U.S. coaches Grant Achatz and Gabriel Kreuther) need to teach Richard about, as we saw that in him four years ago when he first competed in the U.S. finals (he placed second). Since then he has expanded his list of accomplishments, including become a Certified Master Chef (CMC), one of only 70 in the country. The CMC exam is a grueling eight-day, 130-hour exam, a fitting warm-up to the challenge of the Bocuse d'Or, whose top competitors train for thousands of hours a year.

I have attended the Bocuse d'Or Europe finals for years, yet no matter which American competitor I've been with, we've rarely been acknowledged by other chefs. Until this trip. Last year, before he even knew he wanted to compete in the U.S. finals, Richard flew out to Norway to observe 2009 Bocuse d'Or gold champion Geir Skeie. Richard wanted to get a closer look at Skeie's training regimen. In addition to befriending Skeie and learning more about his preparation, Richard's visit sent a message to a lot of people that he was extremely focused on winning the U.S. finals. To be fair, however, even prior to that trip, Richard possessed one of our country's strongest records in international cooking competitions.

In any case, on the last day of Bocuse d'Or Europe finals there were many heavyweights left to watch, including teams from Norway, Finland, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. We were especially excited to see Norway and Denmark in action. To our minds, Sweden was in first place going into that day, but we knew the Norwegians and Danes would give the Swedes a run. We got up early to get over to the competition and arrived even before the security guards were in place to check badges, then quickly split up. Richard stood in front of Norway's booth, I took Denmark, and Corey checked up on the others. Combined, I think we took a total of 700 photos that day plus pages and pages of notes about the competitors' equipment, supplementary ingredients (everyone must use the same meat and fish protein), dish presentation, etc.

Not surprisingly, after a while, we all found ourselves in front of Norway's booth -- along with a lot of other people. While 2011 Bocuse d'Or bronze medalist Gunnar Hvarnes was no longer representing Norway, his replacement, Orjan Johannessen and his commis also had -- wait for it -- yup, that presence. They were a machine. What's more, their kitchen was full of gadgets and equipment all branded with Orjan's name. His promotional poster (part of the tradition of the Bocuse d'Or is that every team has one) pictured him giving that eye-of-the-tiger stare. Moreover, despite the seeming pressure of the competition, every move he made in the kitchen looked routine. He and his commis genuinely seemed to be having fun, smiling, saying hello to Richard as he walked past, looking up at their legions of supporters.

Denmark looked good, too. The last chef to represent Denmark in the Bocuse d'Or was Rasmus Kofoed. He actually competed three times and made it to the podium on all three occasions: winning bronze, silver and finally gold in 2011. The guy was an animal, talented beyond belief, focused, obsessive, but, thankfully for us, no longer in the competition. Nevertheless, you could still smell his influence in the kitchen set-up and techniques of his replacement, Jeppe Foldager, who was excellent, if unavoidably still in the shadow of his legendary predecessor.

Watching all of the teams waiting to hear the results was nerve-racking -- and we didn't even have a vested interest in the outcome. Some teams were vying for a podium spot, others just wanted to get into the top 12 so they could move on to Lyon. The first prizes given out were for subcategories. Best Commis went to France. While this may sound like good news for France, it wasn't, as only teams that don't finish in the top three are eligible for these subcategory awards. France wound up finishing fifth, which is not something I could recall happening before. The prize for Best Fish went to Iceland, which finished fourth overall. Their platters looked great and they will be worth keeping an eye on in Lyon next year. The next prize, Best Meat, went to the United Kingdom, which placed sixth, a mere point behind France.

When it came time to announce the big prizes -- the top three winning teams -- starting with bronze, I turned to Richard and said, "Denmark." He nodded in agreement and sure enough, there they were minutes later holding the trophy. Next up, silver, and we both knew, again, that it was going to be Sweden, a great team with a lot of momentum. (Kudos to the Prince of Sweden for being present to root them on, too.) Finally, the gold, and everyone including the winning team (they were fixing their aprons in anticipation of the photo shoot) knew it was going to Norway. They deserved it and the prize was the culmination of their six months of uninterrupted training.

Winning the Bocuse d'Or European finals has sometimes been akin to winning a Golden Globe, a warm-up to the Oscars. However, as with awards for movies, sometimes a sleeper comes along and surprises everyone. Here's to the road to Lyon ... wish us luck, but more importantly, wish us, "The Presence."

All photos by Richard Rosendale.