We were fortunate enough to get tickets to the Bocuse d’Or gala dinner held at Epcot on Saturday, September 27, 2008. This was obviously a huge splurge for us, but it was something that we really wanted to do, since it was probably going to be our only opportunity to see this amount of incredible culinary talent assembled in one room.
For those not familiar with the Bocuse d’Or, it is basically THE international culinary competition. Paul Bocuse founded it in 1983, and winning affords a lot of prestige to the champion. The competition itself is held in Lyon, which we could not attend, but the portion of the competition held at Epcot was to determine the American chef who would participate in the international competition.
Eight different chefs and their commis were participating in the two-day event:
Chef Timothy Hollingsworth & Commis Adina Guest from The French Laundry
Chef Hung Huynh from Solo & Commis Girari Goumroian
Chef Rogers Powell and Commis Kyle Fiasconaro from the French Culinary Institute
Chef John Rellah and Commis Vincent Forchelli from Hamilton Farm Golf Club
Chef Richard Rosendale and Commis Seth Warren from Rosendales
Chef Michael Rotondo and Commis Jennifer Petrusky from Restaurant Charlie at the Palazzo
Chef Kevin Sbraga from Garces Restaurant Group and Commis Aimee Patel from Amada
Chef Percy Whatley from Ahwanee Hotel and Commis Josh Johnson from Delaware North Parks
The officials and judges read like a Who’s Who in Cooking. In the officials group were Paul Bocuse, Jerome Bocuse, Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, and Lea Linster. The fish judges were Daniel Humm, Traci des Jardins, Gavin Kaysen, Patrick O’Connell, Alain Sailhac, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Beef judges were Michel Bouit, Hartmut Handke, David Myers, Georges Perrier, Andre Soltner, and Laurent Tourondel. It was unbelievable to us that we actually got to see and speak with these incredibly fabulous chefs.
Because we’d purchased gala dinner tickets with our American Express card, we were able to get Silver Access passes for the competition. This entitled us, besides our free chef’s hat, tiny American flag, and noisemaker (which everyone got), to the preferred seating section of the bleachers and entry into the Chef’s Lounge. The Chef’s Lounge was great on so many levels. Our favorite part was that the chefs would just come strolling through there, so it was a great place for obtaining autographs. It also had tables and chairs and a huge viewing screen that showed what was going on in the competition area. There was a bar with bottled water and Moet et Chandon champagne, and there were also food offerings. Not being a carnivore, I had three different types of cheeses and three small chocolates. My husband, who eats meat only on vacation, had a beef slider made with Brandt beef (one of the event sponsors) and some charcuterie and pate by D’Artagnan (another sponsor).
The competition part of the event was a bit chaotic, from an organizational standpoint. It was interesting seeing the demographics, because there was a big gap in attendees. There were the hardcore “foodies,” industry people, and their friends and family. And then, because it was held at Disney World, there were the bulky middle Americans who wandered in, having seen the event on their Food and Wine Festival schedule of events. It was hilarious, seeing the pin trader types wearing the sequined gold mouse ears as they’d stand in front of the food, blocking all other viewers, until asked to move along. The juxtaposition was really interesting.
We checked in at the VIP desk, to pick up our access passes, and then went into the competition area. There were three sets of bleachers, one of which had “Reserved” marked on it. No seats were available at this point in the other two sets of bleachers, so we asked one of the white-shirted cast members waving glowing sticks where the preferred seating was. She told us that there was no preferred seating, and that we’d have to stand. Fortunately I noticed another couple speaking with a more senior-level cast member who directed them to the “Reserved” bleacher stand. We approached her, and she sent us that way, as well. This was great, since for the first thirty minutes or so, there was plenty of room to spread out in the reserved section. We could get up, get autographs, and return without having to worry about someone having taken our seat. The event was very popular with the wander-in folks, though, so the cast members decided to remove the “Reserved” signs and let everyone in. After this, things were difficult, because we had to always leave one of us behind to hold seats, while the other went to get photos or autographs. I wish that they had opened maybe half of this section and kept the other half for the preferred seating that we’d been promised. Of course, I’m sure those without tickets would disagree with me!
Because most of the chefs were Frenchmen, the seating issue caused a problem for us. Of the two of us, my husband is the bigger fan, so I wanted him to get to be the one to meet the chefs, get their autographs, take pictures, etc. However, Frenchmen have a marked predilection for women, and we noticed that I got a very different reception from the one that he got. He was treated with indifference by some of the chefs, whereas this was not a problem when I approached them. Teamwork would have been much better in this case than what ended up happening. He would send me out to get autographs while he held down the fort.
We were given a chef’s toque at the check-in table, along with a Sharpie marker, and we used this to get autographs from the chefs. It turned out to be a great idea, and we now have a wonderful souvenir of the event.
The competition itself was often annoying, mainly because of Al Roker. The man kept up a steady stream of patter for four and a half hours, all of it inane, some of it insulting. At one point, he was trying to interview John Rellah and his commis, both of whom had been cooking nonstop since early that morning. The commis ran to the restroom before the interview, so Al Roker took it upon himself to announce to the entire audience, “The commis is in the commode.” I thought that he went out of his way to embarrass or annoy the chefs there, but maybe he is normally a blunderer. Al’s presence also attracted a good number of guests who were there, not because they cared about the culinary event, but just because they wanted to get a look at Al. I think if they’d taken Al out of the mix, we’d have cut down on a good 20% of the attendees, which would have been good, since it was so crowded that the exits kept getting clogged and they’d come along periodically and clear people out.
The chefs each served one fish platter, followed by individual servings for the fish judges. They then served one meat platter, followed by individual servings for the meat judges. It was so neat, getting to see the judges taste the food, take photos of the food, etc.
The competition ended at 3:30, at which point they promptly booted everyone out, to set up for the gala dinner. We checked into our hotel, the Boardwalk Inn, which had fortunately just been rehabbed. No longer were the carpets faded and stained; everything looked bright, elegant, and well-kept, which was pleasing.
By 6:45, we were lined up yet again at the World Showplace area. The cast members out front split us into two lines by last name, which was bizarre, considering that there was no such division once they finally let us in at 7:20. The disorganization showed again in their tardiness; the event was scheduled to begin at 7:00, and they kept men in jackets and ties standing out in 85 degree weather. No one gave us a time frame, which we would have appreciated.
Once we entered, though, it was fabulous. The décor was very ethereal, with blue lighting and clouds projected onto large dividers. The entryway was lined with servers holding trays of drinks: Manhattans, mojitos, glasses of Veuve Cliquot champagne. Once we got into the cocktail area, we saw that the competition kitchens had been transformed into hors d’oeuvres preparation areas. We could circulate and see what each chef was preparing. Servers floated through the crowds, carrying trays of hors d’oeuvres, or guests could pick up the food at the kitchen areas. There were a few different options here, each created by a different chef. Most contained meat, so I didn’t get to taste them all, but Chef Scott Hunnel from Victoria and Albert’s had one of the duck appetizers made for me without the duck, which I really appreciated. We always appreciate the excellent level of service at Victoria and Albert’s, so this was very typical of Chef Scott.
There were two fall squash appetizers: Kabocha squash wrapped with smoked salmon, by Chef David Myers from Sona, and Butternut Squash Panna Cotta with celery and truffle salad by Chef Traci des Jardin from Jardiniere. Both of these were okay, but not excellent. The panna cotta was light and fluffy, but I don’t care for celery, so I didn’t enjoy the greens. The squash with smoked salmon was also very light and mild in flavor, but the squash was extremely hard and crunchy, like a tough carrot stick. This was not my favorite section.
There were two wild mushroom appetizers: a while mushroom cappuccino by Chef Georges Perrier from Le Bec Fin and a Jalousie d’epinards et champignons sauvages by Chef Andre Soltner of the French Culinary Institute. The mushroom cappuccino was unbelievable. It had a lovely, dark, rich flavor, with a froth on top. My husband and I both agreed that this was the best thing we’d eaten all day. The mushroom tart was mild and flaky, and generally didn’t stand up to comparison with the cappuccino.
The foie gras booth also had two amuses bouches: foie gras terrine with raisin and apple mostarda by Chef Laurent Tourondel of BLT Restaurants and a foie gras feuillete, caramelized endive and mango by Chef Alain Sailhac of the French Culinary Institute. My husband tried both of these, since we are both lovers of foie gras, and since I enjoy living vicariously. The foie gras feuillete was a napoleon of foie gras pate, and it was creamy, rich, and delicious. My husband said that there was something about it that stuck in the mouth, so that he could taste it for several minutes afterward, which he enjoyed. He usually prefers a piece of foie gras, but he really enjoyed this. The foie gras terrine was good, but he usually prefers peaches or pears with his foie gras, so the raisins were a bit different.
The last booth was the duck booth, with grilled duck and armagnac sausage, black lentil dal and red curry sauce in phyllo by Chef Roland Muller of WDW. I had this, minus the duck and sausage, and it was quite good. The phyllo was flaky and crisp, as good phyllo should be, and the filling was very spicy and exotic. The second taste from this was a roasted Muscovy duck with fennel and blood oranges, smoked bacon and Minus 8 vinaigrette by Chef Scott Hunnel of Victoria and Albert’s. My husband was very impressed by this dish. The duck was incredibly tender, and the bacon paired well with it and was a nice surprise.
After the cocktail hour was over, we were told to go into the dining area. The tables were assigned with numbers and the name of an herb; ours was number 26, mace. We were seated next to a French couple whose company was one of the event sponsors: Cuisine Solutions. The couple across from us was from New York originally, though they now live in Miami.
Our first course was incredibly lush and decadent, rightfully called the “Tin of Sin.” Each place setting had a toque on the plate, and beneath the toque was a caviar tin. This was the first course from Chef Patrick O’Connell of the Inn at Little Washington. It was a Peekytoe crab salad with Petrossian caviar. This dish was absolutely marvelous, and it turned out to be the best thing we ate that night. The crab salad was very light, and it was complemented beautifully by the caviar. This caviar was not too salty or fishy, as some caviars can be, and the portion was extremely generous. We were each given a crisp, buttery piece of brioche toast, and I slathered the caviar and crab salad onto this. Even though I piled it high, I had enough in the tin of sin to use two pieces of toast and then some left over to eat by itself!
This was paired with a Paragon Sauvignon Blanc 2006 from the Edna Valley Vineyard. We both enjoyed this wine very much. It was citrusy and crisp, with a lot of fruit, and it was definitely our favorite of the white wines.
The next course was the fish course, a Steamed Pierless Cod with Hojimenji mushrooms and a ginger-soy-hijiki sauce by Chef Charlie Trotter from Charlie Trotter’s. We appreciated that each chef stood up on the stage and said a few words about his dish. The cod was perfectly cooked, so light, tender, and smooth. The flavor was very mild, though the sweet and sour mushrooms added a bit of zing to the dish. I felt like this offering was more about the texture of the fish, rather than actual taste, since it was so mild. This dish was served with an Acacia Vineyard Chardonnay 2006. We’re not huge Chardonnay fans, but this was pretty good. It was very oaky, and I got a lot of banana flavors off of this wine.
The third course was where my husband and I parted ways. This was a duo of Brandt beef: red wine braised short ribs and seared rib eye, glazed beet, root vegetable gratin, horseradish, by Chef Daniel Boulud of Daniel. I had asked for the vegetarian option for this course, and I was disappointed to see that I got the exact same thing that my husband did, simply minus the beef. The root vegetable gratin was pretty good, but it was a bit dry. It would have been better if it had been creamier in texture. The glazed beet was surprisingly enjoyable, and it had a lot of flavor. The horseradish cream was very light, almost foamy. On my husband’s plate, it was served on top of the beef, but on mine, it was just served by itself, which was one of the reasons for my disappointment in this option. Who wants to eat plain horseradish cream? The braised short ribs were fatty, but not uncomfortably so. They were extremely tender, with a nice flavor, but my husband preferred Chef Aimee’s short ribs at Victoria & Albert’s. These were served on top of a parsnip puree, which was very creamy and flavorful. The seared rib eye was also flavorful, with a clean taste. The jus that it came with was not memorable, but my husband enjoyed the horseradish cream with this beef selection. The wine with this course was a Beaulieu Vineyards Tapestry Reserve 2004, which we both enjoyed very much. I have a case of the 1999 Tapestry that my husband gave me for my birthday one year, and we are generally Tapestry fans.
The final course of the sit-down portion of the dinner was a cheese plate with four cheeses: Comte Fort Russe, Grayson, Manchester, and Gorgonzola Piccante. The Comte Fort Russe was a nice, creamy goat’s milk cheese, while the Grayson was referred to by Max McCalman as “the stinky cheese like an Epoisse.” It was made in Virginia, though we’d never heard of the farm at which it was made. The Manchester was very enjoyable, with a bit of a bite to it, while the Gorgonzola Piccante was also very good: creamy and not too ammonia-y. The wine with this course was a Dom Perignon Champagne, Brut, 2000, according to the menu, but the bottle they poured ours from was a 1999. We don’t often get the chance to enjoy a vintage Dom Perignon, so we were excited about this wine.
After the cheese course was underway, they began the ceremonies on stage. The winner (big surprise) was the chef from Thomas Keller’s restaurant, The French Laundry. We figured that it would be so, since Thomas Keller was one of the officials, even though he wasn’t a judge. We obviously didn’t get to taste any of the food from the contest, but we were very impressed by the presentation skills of Chef John Rellah. Both his fish course and his beef course were incredibly beautiful, but he didn’t win any of the lesser prizes in the contest even. Ah, well.
Before presenting the prizes, all of the chefs participating in the event entered the dining room, Disney style, i.e. following a giant stuffed rat. Again, the juxtaposition was striking, as a minimum-wage actor gamboling in a Remy suit led a parade of chefs like Alain Salhac around the room. Only Disney would force a collection of grand master chefs to follow a rat around, and I had to wonder what they thought of this odd, ill-suited levity, compared to the treatment that they receive in other countries.
After the award presentation, Jerome Bocuse appeared in the back of the room, holding a giant bottle of champagne and a saber. What he did next was very, very sexual. He held the bottle in one hand, and with the saber in his other hand, he began stroking the bottle from the base of its neck out to the cork. He stroked the bottle faster and faster until finally he knocked off the cork and champagne spurted out of the bottle. It was a just a very funny moment.
This was the signal for confetti to pour from the ceiling and for the band in the other room (the cocktail area) to begin playing “Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot.” Everyone poured out into that room again, where there were nine different dessert stations set up, in addition to the bar areas. We carried our champagne with us, because we’re not ones to waste a vintage Dom Perignon!
Of the desserts, there were six that we didn’t get to try because we just weren’t hungry. These were as follows:
- Passion Fruit and Chocolate Baked Alaska by Chef Andreas Born of Disney’s Hollywood Studios
- Salted caramel, coffee, passion fruit duchesse by Chef Ewald Notter of Notter School of Pastry Arts
- Assorted petits fours and fruits with champagne foam by Chef Stefan Reimer of Disney’s Yacht & Beach Club Resorts
- “Poire Helene” poached Bose pear, Valrhona chocolate ganache, almond financier and amaretti gelato by Chef Kelly Smith of Disney’s Boardwalk Resort
- Chocolate Caramel cheesecake martini and apricot napoleon by Chef Chris Vitanza of Disney’s Contemporary Resort
- Celebration Cake by Chef Mike McCarey of Mike’s Amazing Cakes
There was another dessert that we didn’t get to try, but that wasn’t listed on the menu. My husband really wanted to check this one out, but he was simply too full. It was a test tube station, and the test tubes were filled with mint chocolate tapioca pearls. These were placed under a long, swirly tube which then pumped what looked like chocolate milk into the test tube. It was very high-tech, but I don’t care for tapioca, so I passed on this one.
We did get to try three of the desserts. I first went for the Grand Marnier-flamed crepes suzette with vanilla cream. It was excellent! I’ve had these where the Grand Marnier was overwhelming, but this was not the case at all. The crepes had a lovely, light orange flavor, without that burning alcohol taste. I enjoyed these very much.
My husband went for the poached strawberry dumplings and wild forest strawberry sauce. Both of our dessert choices happened to be by Eric Herbitschek of Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa. The dumplings were so soft and warm with a strawberry inside, but they were a bit too mild in flavor for us. I prefer a bit of tartness or zing to my strawberry dishes, and these were just very light and mild. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t spectacular.
Our final choice was excellent. This was a tropical fruit tartar and champagne sabayon by Chef Lothar Neumaier of Epcot. I enjoyed this very much. It was sweet, but a little tangy from the tropical fruits. The champagne sabayon was light, and it was a very refreshing dessert.
We did have one funny moment with Chef Alain Salhac. My husband saw Chef Alain, with whom we’d spoken earlier that evening, and so he said, “Ca va?” Chef Alain, who was completely drunk, apparently, told my husband that this was the best day of his life and asked if my husband knew why. He said, “Because I met you! I live each day like it’s the greatest day.” It was so much fun, to get to see a completely different side of these old school French chefs.
We also saw Chef Scott and Sous Chef Aimee from Victoria and Albert’s Restaurant. They were having a great time, and Aimee was in awe of the incredible talent gathered in one room.
After the desserts were over and we’d had our fill of circulating, we decided to head back to the hotel. It was truly one of the most fabulous days we’ve ever had, well worth the $325 per person price tag.