Bocuse goes vegan

A small earthquake on Planet Gastronomy. For thirty years, teams of chefs from various countries have competed for the championship of the Bocuse d’Or, the world’s most prestigious culinary competition. Nevertheless, the biennial competition, held in Lyons, France, is still not that well-known here in the States, except in rarified circles. But last week’s announcement of the winner got more coverage than usual, since the United States cohort triumphed for the first time. The winner: Matthew Peters, from New York City’s Per Se.

“We have to learn or relearn how to work with vegetables.”

For us, though, more newsworthy than the home-team victory is what we learned was a surprising, relatively last-minute change in the rules of the competition itself. A mere eight weeks before the event, this announcement came down from the authorities:

“For the ‘dish on a plate [category],’ participants in the 2017 grand finale will be required to prepare a creation that is 100% vegetal, composed exclusively of fruits, vegetables, cereals, seeds or legumes.” You’ll find the fine print rules and conditions here.

Why? “We have to learn or relearn how to work with vegetables,” said Régis Marcone, president of the event’s organizing committee. Can a vegan dish occupy the center of the plate?  “From now on, it ought to be approached as a dish in and of itself, the same way that one approaches a fish or a meat.” But the effect of the new requirement set some of the teams back on their heels.

The German crew volunteered: “To cook vegetarian, without meat or fish, is easy. Vegan—without any animal product—that’s very complicated.” And James Olberg of the Canadian team, after working full-time since September on the required chicken and shellfish dish, admitted to CTV news that he was “stymied by the late addition of the vegan dish.”

As La Libération remarked, it was a “turning point for the chefs,” and a “rude awakening.” The lede for Le Monde put it this way: “Small earthquake on planet gastronomy.”

(But perhaps not quite so much for the Americans: for years Per Se has been offering a nine-course vegetarian tasting menu.)

Why are center-stage vegetables so daunting for some chefs? The paper speculated that the fault lies at the feet of the great chef Georges-Auguste Escoffier (d. 1935), whose founding of modern French cuisine reduced the role of vegetables to more or less a garnish.

The vegan creation on the winning menu was far from garnish: “California asparagus with cremini mushrooms, potatoes, a custard made of green almonds, Meyer lemon confit, a Bordelaise sauce and a crumble using an almond and vegetable yeast preparation that mimicked Parmesan cheese.”

But, as always, it tastes better this way: asperge de Californie, champignons crimini, citron Meyer confit, sauce bordelaise et crumble au parmesan.

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Jeffrey Kittay After teaching literature at Yale, Kittay founded and was editor-in-chief of the magazine Lingua Franca: The Review of Academic Life, which the New York Times called “a hip trade journal for the cerebral set.” It won the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. He was subsequently part of the adjunct faculty at the Graduate School of Journalism of Columbia University, and the corporate board of Maine’s Portland Press Herald.

Kittay holds a Ph.D. from NYU and an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Amherst College.