Saturday, November 29, 2008

Foodie dreams come true

I am not a trained chef. I don't even cook on a regular basis...not food I would serve anyone besides myself anyway. But I am a giant foodie nerd. Not just a regular actual giant nerd.

So when I got the chance to pitch a radio documentary about Canada's Bocuse D'or team, I jumped at it. Like, 100 feet in the air.

Bocuse D'or, FYI, is the world's biggest, most important culinary competition. European teams spend millions of euros training their chefs. People paint their faces with their national colours and cheer just like it's a soccer game. You cook in the middle of it all. It's outdoors. It's crazy.

The American team consists of no less than all the big Food Network names. You know who they are: Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Mario Batali, Tom Colicchio, etc. etc. Their budget is, at last count, just over a mil.

But let me tell you something about Canada's team. We're represented by the amazing David Wong. Never heard of him? He's based out of Vancouver. He used to be a social worker...turned chef. Trained by one of Canada's best: Robert Sulatycky (more on him later). Now teaches at a culinary school here. His chef commis is Grace Pineda, a very accomplished 22-year-old in her own right. Robert Sulatycky is their coach. Here's a little about Robert: former head of some of Canada's most luxurious hotels, current head of the kitchens at the Bel Air and Beverly Hills hotels. He competed at Bocuse in 1999 and has the distinction of being the highest ranked North American chef ever to compete there (he finished fourth).

Here's the rub: Canada's got a small team compared with everyone else. They've also got a MUCH smaller budget...nowhere near even half a mil.

I've been fascinated by the whole David and Goliath thing. Ha ha. Anyway, I finally got the chance to hang with the team while they did a practice run.

A practice run consists of five and half hours of grueling, non-stop attempts at making the best food you've ever made. That's the time they'll get when they go to the competition in Lyon, France.

I have personally crowned David the nicest chef ever. I've told him this. For example, first thing he does when I walk into the kitchen at 6:30 am on a Sunday is warmly greet me and offer me something to drink.

As a food nerd, being there and watching the pros do their thing was like going to some kind of fantasy camp. I've never been so happy watching people souvide, puree, saute...

I also got to meet the other main players in the team: Robert Sulatycky and team manager Vincent Parkinson. Robert's whole swagger and look reminded me of Anthony Bourdain...but without the arrogance. And Vincent was incredibly helpful in filling me in on the details. Like how their sterling silver platters can only be used ONE time because the oils of the food ruin the plates. So they've got their plates waiting in France for them, with aluminum ones for practice for now. The silver ones cost $22,000. For one shot. Do you get how much people put into this competition?

I kept my mike on and pointed at them the whole time. Never once did David lose his cool. Possibly the most memorable moment was when he tossed me a tasting spoon and gestured toward his pomme puree. "Go ahead", he tells me. I didn't need any encouragement. I dipped my spoon in and tasted something I will never forget. Creamy, almost cheesy, smooth, warm...the flavour spread in my mouth. It was one of the best things I'd ever tasted. I'll never forget that spoonful.

I also got to watch the critique afterwards. Now, some people find it brutal that you could go balls to the wall for over five hours and then be told what you did doesn't work. But frankly...I've been in meetings like that about stories =) When you're trying to make the best you've ever made, it does make a big difference that your parsley leaves be just small enough and facing the right way, consistently on everything. That's the kind of detail we're talking about.

Then afterwards, even after all the cooking and interviews (because I wasn't the only one trying to get his attention!) David was gracious enough to have a chat with me. I had been looking forward to it for months. I had previously booked David for the CBC Radio afternoon show in Vancouver and it was the day the heads of the American team were announced. I remember asking him if he knew who they were...he didn't. Lol. It was a funny moment.

Anyway, I finally got to ask him some of the questions I'd wanted to ask. Like, how do you go from social worker to chef? (A trip to Spain and an amazing paella apparently). How good does he think their chances are at taking home the ultimate prize...$20,000 euros and a gold statue of Paul Bocuse? (Fantastic...everything's been going their way so far, knock wood). I could've talked to him for hours. He's one of those guys who always gives you his full attention and as much time as you need.

I'm frankly terrified that my radio piece won't do him and his team justice. I can't wait to see how they do in Lyon. The competition is at the end of January FYI. It'll be streamed live on the internet if you're interested. I hope one day Canada takes this as seriously as the Europeans chefs like David will be treated like the rock stars they are. I'm rooting for you!!!