January 06, 2010

BOOKS: Knives at Dawn, Andrew Friedman (2009)

The Bocuse d'Or is a two-day competition in which nations are represented by a chef and his/her assistant; each team has five and a half hours to prepare two elaborate platters of food (one fish, one meat). Taste is important, to be sure, but the visual spectacle of the food matters almost as much. Most Americans, even a lot of foodies, have never heard of the Bocuse d'Or, but to the culinary world outside the US, it's a very big deal. If you're a Top Chef fan, you might remember the Bocuse d'Or-inspired competition from the show's most recent season -- the one with the ridiculously intricate garnishes and the shiny mirrored platters.

(Were the Food Network really interested in food, they'd be offering us coverage of the Bocuse d'Or, as several European TV networks do. It only happens every two years, and if they can cram an 8-hour cake decorating contest into a one-hour show, they can certainly fit the Bocuse d'Or into a 2-hour special.)

In Knives at Dawn, Andrew Friedman follows the US team -- chef Timothy Hollingsworth and his assistant, Adina Guest -- as they prepare for the 2009 competition. Going into this competition, the US team had never finished higher than sixth, but a small group of prominent American chefs (Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller among them) was determined to give this year's team the financial support and practice time they would need to reach the medal stand.

Hollingsworth faces a variety of challenges, not least of which is simply planning his menu. Should he focus on the food he likes to cook, emphasize American ingredients and flavors, or try to sway the judges with traditional classic technique? He also finds that even with the backing of Boulud and Keller's group, it's nearly impossible to find enough rehearsal and preparation time.

Friedman assumes a basic level of food knowledge. but really unusual techniques or foreign terms are always explained so that even the non-foodie can follow what's happening reasonably well. His book is a solid and entertaining piece of journalism, and he does a lively job of bringing his principal characters to life

No comments: