Book Review: Knives at Dawn

By: Ellen Ireland

Knives at Dawn: America’s Quest for Culinary Glory at the Legendary Bocuse d’Or Competition. Andrew Friedman Free Press (Hardback 2009, Paperback 2010)

I am addicted to culinary competitions. The first time I watch a Food Network broadcast of The International Pastry Championship, I knew for the first time the excitement my friends felt watching our college football team. As food competitions have become commonplace in the form of reality TV, they still impress. Watching a chef create a delicious looking dish in a small amount of time is like watching magic.

What we do not see in these shows is the culture of being a chef. America does not universally subscribe to the rigid, longstanding traditions of training that are still common in Europe. Knives at Dawn is hypothetically about a plucky American chef out to win fame and fortune in a notoriously difficult competition. That is not what this book is really about. Laid out in the framework of the preparations and competition of the Bocuse d’Or is an in depth examination of the hierarchy of the kitchen. In fact, one gets the sense that the American competitors would rather not have to bother with the competition at all; it is strenuous, time consuming, and incredibly expensive to participate. But when a respected chef calls, they all respond “yes chef!” with unthinking compulsion.

The Bocuse d’Or is a culinary competition founded in 1987 by the legendary French chef Paul Bocuse. Each team consists of a chef and an assistant, representing their home country. If you have ever watched an episode of Food Network’s “Challenge”, you can picture the scene: two people in each little kitchenette, frantically cooking while the clock counts down and the audience grows louder. At least the chefs in the Bocuse d’Or know what the assignment is in advance: there is always a fish plate, and a meat plate. What type of fish (for instance, cod and tiny shrimp) and what type of meat (such as specific cuts of beef) are chosen by the Bocuse d’Or committee a year before the next competition so that the teams have plenty of time to prepare.

Many cooking competitions in the U.S. do not require the credentials of a celebrity chef, merely the guts to give it a go. We have state fair contests, reality show competitions, and Michelin stars to award those found worthy. International competitions are something different all together. They are intended to display something unique about the competitors, a tradition of art, a style of cooking, or a type of ingredient. The chefs who populate Knives at Dawn are interesting for their apparent Francophilia. It was not plucky American spirit that drove the USA team to “Quest for Culinary Glory”; it was the French who asked us to compete. Paul Bocuse himself wanted us there. He had created the competition to be a biannual international “food Olympics”. Success of an American team would generate interest in the competition in America, and increase its popularity. Bocuse phoned Thomas Keller of the French Laundry (rumored in food circles to be America’s best restaurant), who recruited Tim Hollingsworth from his kitchen to compete. These are American chefs trained in the French tradition; hence the automatic agreement when requested to participate.

The most interesting question raised by this book, in an offhanded manor, is about American cuisine:  Has it really come into its own? The American chef, Hollingsworth, want to represent the USA in the manor that international competitions hypothetically expect: using uniquely American ingredients (ie, maple syrup). Although Friedman makes many remarks about the new respect American food has found in the world of culinary review, we also learn that those who compete in the Bocuse d’Or perform the best if they cook in a traditional French manner. Hollingsworth is determined to win on the basis of flavor rather than ornate design, and bring out something American in the dishes. What he doesn’t count on is the very different nature of even the type of ingredients available in France- everything from eggs to beef has a different flavor and texture. There is a rather humerous moment when he panics and exclaims “What is the French word for crème fraiche?”

The author is a sports writer, and that is the manner in which the tale is told. This is not really a story about food or even cooking, but the culture of a competition populated by international chefs. The dizzying parade of names was off-putting to me, but if you are a chef or have a strong interest in food competition methodologies, you will enjoy this book. If you are looking for a story packed with descriptions of tempting cuisine and intriguing methods, you’ll have to wade through half a book filled with anecdotes about celebrity chefs such as Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud. If nothing else, it is worthwhile to pick up the book and flip to the last chapter to see how the contest turns out, and see if America could, in the words of Rocky, “go the distance”.

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