Before the Food Network, or the Cooking Channel, or Top Chef, or Iron Chef, there were industry-led cooking competitions. The oldest still-running competition may be the Culinary Olympics, dating back to Germany circa 1900. Even the Pillsbury Bake-Off has been around for over 70 years.
Each competition brings its own prestige and pride. But at the top of the list, you’ll find the Bocuse d’Or. Since 1987, this prestigious event has brought some of the world’s best chefs together for a one-day culinary marathon.
The United States has sent representatives to the Bocuse d’Or many times over the years. But they’ve only been able to reach the podium twice. And both times, Chef Philip Tessier was an integral part of that success.
Learn more about this illustrious event, Chef Philip’s victories, and the intense world of cooking competitions!
About the Bocuse d’Or
Every other year since 1987, chefs have gathered in Lyon, France to compete in the Bocuse d’Or competition. Translating to “the gold Bocuse,” this competition is named after legendary French chef Paul Bocuse, who revolutionized nouvelle cuisine in the 20th century.
The competition gathers great chefs from around the world, each chosen in qualifying competitions. The Americas, for example, will be sending five teams for the 2023 competition, with finalists chosen from Guatemala, Canada, Colombia, Bolivia, Mexico, the United States, Chile, and Ecuador.
Each team is made up of just two people, the chef and the commis chef (who must be 22 years old or younger.) “There’s generally at least a ten-year age gap between the chef and the commis,” explains Chef Philip.* But behind the scenes, there are coaches and advisors that help the teams get ready for the big day.
The finalists all gather in Lyon for the Grand Final. It’s an intense two days, with 12 teams cooking each day. And it all happens in a massive stadium, in front of 12,500 supporters!
Unlike the Culinary Olympics, which has a long list of events you can medal in, the Bocuse d’Or is just one event with one podium. It’s a five-and-a-half-hour marathon of cooking, ending when each team presents a plated dish and a grand platter showpiece.
The chefs have two judging panels to impress. The Kitchen Jury assesses the chefs’ hygiene, organization, use of ingredients, technical skill, and waste reduction. Then the Tasting Jury assesses the visual presentation, harmony of flavors, and garnishes. It’s a truly comprehensive assessment!
Sometimes, the details change. In 2021, for example, the plated dish was replaced by a “takeaway test” to reflect the new reliance on to-go food in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When it’s all finished, the winner receives a prize of 20,000 euros. But that’s a small amount compared to all the work it takes to get there. The true prize is the respect and accolades of your industry peers.
Chef Philip Tessier at the Bocuse d’Or
With a career spanning great restaurants like Thomas Keller’s Per Se, The French Laundry, and Bouchon, Chef Philip Tessier has made a career out of excellence.
He brought that excellence to Bocuse d’Or in 2015, where he became the first American chef to ever reach the podium. Two years later, he was back—this time as a coach, guiding the American team to its first-ever gold-medal victory. These are the only two medals that the US has ever won at Bocuse!
2015: Taking Home the Silver
“In 2015,” Chef Philip recalls, “we went [to Bocuse d’Or] as total underdogs. Nobody paid attention to us. Having been involved in competition now for the better part of a decade, you realize very quickly that there are three, four, maybe five teams that everybody’s really paying attention to. At the beginning of that day, we were not one of them.”*
That year, the spotlight was on the French team, literally. They were surrounded by cameras, leaving most of the other teams—including the U.S.—to work under the radar.
“As the day progressed, that changed pretty quickly,” he says. “People started to realize that we had come with something quite different.”*
The intensity was palpable. “I’ve never considered myself a competition chef, but I think when you’re put into this environment, it really pushes you to your limits. To this day, I still look back and wonder, ‘How do I get back to that level of intensity and focus?’ It’s something that pushes you to your limits in a really good way.”*
Chef Philip and Commis Chef Skylar Stover presented a plated dish of brioche-crusted brown trout pavé, and a meat platter of barrel-oak roasted guinea hen.
When chef Grant Achatz (of Alinea fame) announced the silver medal envelope, the release of the weight was intense.
“You don’t realize the weight that is on your shoulders until you allow yourself to think about it,” Chef Philip says. “For so many months—really the whole year—we were trying to push aside the pressure and focus on the task at hand.”*
“When you’re finally able to let your guard down and accept what we had achieved, it was pretty extraordinary. Just a flood of emotion.”*
Chef Philip Tessier, Bocuse d’Or 2015 Silver Medalist and Coach of Bocuse d’Or 2017 Gold Medal Team
2017: Leading the Team to Gold
Two years later, Chef Philip was back—this time as a coach. Working with a team including Head Chef Matthew Peters and Commis Chef Harrison Turone, Chef Philip brought his 2015 experience to guide the new team to victory.
With an emphasis on building teamwork and trust, Chef Philip and the team brought intense focus to the competition.
The 2017 competition asked for a meat platter based on “chicken and crayfish,” which was served at the first competition back in 1987. Team USA presented chicken stuffed with morel sausage, foie gras, and crawfish for their platter, and California green asparagus with toasted almond custard and lemon confit for their plated dish.
After the dishes were tasted and the envelope was read, Chef Philip had made history again—Team USA took home the gold. The win was even more special, as it was the competition’s 30th anniversary!
Now, Chef Philip is the only chef in the world to hold both a silver and a gold at the Bocuse d’Or.
“It’s one of those things that’s really hard to translate to a young chef,” says Chef Philip. “That level of commitment just reaches such an extraordinarily different level of reward. I think it’s one of my passions, to really tell this Bocuse story in a more tangible way that gets people excited about it.”*
The Intense World of Cooking Competitions
The pressures of cooking competitions can be intense. To keep a level head, contestants must practice, practice, practice. And always remember why they’re there.
For Chef Philip, it was about bringing the USA to the level of achievement that he knew was possible on an international stage. If you’re in it for money, you’ll probably be disappointed!
“I remember my 11-year-old was like, ‘Papa, you should do more competitions so you can earn more money,’” he recalls. “I said, ‘I hate to break it to you, but they don’t pay very well.’”*
But competitions can open a lot of doors. Participants may get to meet other chefs and culinary experts. Plus a medal or a win can be a huge resume builder.
“I look at the opportunity the Bocuse d’Or has given me. The doors that it’s opened in my career and path. [Paul Bocuse is] the one who created that opportunity for myself and others. I think a lot of what I do today is really with that in mind. I have that same responsibility to those who work for me.”*
If you have your sights set on competitions, start by working for the best chefs in the best restaurants. “It’s not about [training] to be a competitor. it’s about training to be a great chef,” says Chef Philip.*
When you’re ready to compete, the best way to get a feel for the pressures of competition is to do it. Start small with local cooking competitions, offered across the country and the world. Some focus on a specific cuisine, like tacos, gumbo, whole hog cooking, or bread, so there’s truly a competition for everyone.
Find Out What You’re Made Of
Competition isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes passion and years of hard work to get to the level of Bocuse d’Or. But if you have that drive to excel and see what you’re capable of, there’s no better test of your mettle.
The road to competition victory is different for everyone. But no medalist can get there without a strong foundation of culinary skills. To start building yours, a culinary school education could be invaluable. Explore the culinary arts programs at Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, available in Boulder, CO; Austin, TX; and online!
To learn more about chefs who have excelled in competition and certifications, try these articles next:
- Veteran Lance McWhorter Finds a Home in the Kitchen After His Military Service
- From Motorsports To Making Tortes: Escoffier Certified Master Pastry Chef® Frank Vollkommer
- Master Baker Colette Christian on Perseverance and Never Giving Up
*Information may not reflect every student’s experience. Results and outcomes may be based on several factors, such as geographical region or previous experience.