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The Real Top Chefs

When most purists talk about "real" cooking competitions, they mean the Culinary Olympics, the Bocuse d'Or, or lesser known contests organized by national foundations such as the American Culinary Federation.
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Culinary competitions have been in the air lately, especially because of the recent Bocuse d'Or USA at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, where the American "candidate" (their word) for the Bocuse d'Or 2013 in Lyon, France was selected.

The most frequent question posed about culinary competitors consists of one simple word: "Why?"

Why do the competitors, most of whom are already committed to grueling daily schedules running or working in professional kitchens, put themselves through the rigors of training, the potential embarrassment or disappointment of losing, the sheer inconvenience of the extra time and commitment?

If you're thinking that the answer is obvious: "The fame and fortune, and the television exposure," then you're probably referring to shows like Top Chef, Iron Chef, or even maybe to Hell's Kitchen.

Depending on your personal taste, some or all of those shows may be entertaining, but let's be clear about something: They are not cooking competitions, at least not in the classic sense; on those shows, the individual challenges are often irreverent, or based on pulling the rug out from under the competitors midstream; the judges are often actors, musicians, firemen, postal workers, dog walkers, ten-year olds, or plain ol' restaurant diners rather than accomplished chefs or food professionals; and you can't help but watch the elimination shows without concluding that inferior contestants are often kept around for entertainment value (you can pretty much bet that any season's biggest instigator won't be kicked off until well past the halfway mark).

When most purists talk about "real" cooking competitions, they mean the Culinary Olympics, the Bocuse d'Or, or lesser known contests organized by national foundations such as, here in the United States, the American Culinary Federation (ACF). The challenges can be modest (cooking two dishes from a mystery basket of ingredients in 90 minutes) or titanic: the Bocuse d'Or asks candidates to produce two stunning platters (one meat and one fish) from a kitchen full of raw ingredients in five and a half hours; after being judged for the visual, the food is portioned out and evaluated by some of the best chefs in the world. Often, the lesser known regional contests take place in private, or in front of small audiences at trade shows. Cash prizes, if any, are minimal, and the competitors would be lucky to see their name in the local paper, let alone find themselves interviewed on television, or even on the radio.

I hadn't given much thought to cooking competitions until I wrote the book Knives at Dawn, about the Bocuse d'Or, the most prestigious one in the world. It's a fascinating subculture of the professional cooking world: Unknown to the masses, there are guys in the culinary competition underground who are superstars within their own community. (Relatively speaking, there aren't that many women drawn to it, which is a fascinating fact worthy of examination. Is the need to compete distinctly male? For another time... )

Unfortunately, in the United States, there's a great divide between restaurant chefs and hotel and cooking school chefs. Generally speaking, the restaurant guys don't have a ton of respect for, or interest in, their counterparts who teach or who run hotel or country club kitchens. Neither, really, do the media. Most competition chefs come from those places and don't tend to be household names.

So, it's all the more remarkable to me that so many of them choose to train and compete. Ask a culinary competitor why he or she does it and the answer will include one or more of the following: "For the challenge." "Because it accelerates my learning process." "To travel and meet other chefs and see other food." I also firmly believe that at some level chefs are innately masochistic, and so they just want to see if they can add competition to their already taxing lives and come out alive on the other end.

Much of this was summed up by Richard Rosendale, executive chef of The Greenbrier, who recently became the U.S. candidate to the Bocuse d'Or. I interviewed him about the value of cooking competition for Knives at Dawn. This is what he had to say about his experience on the U.S. Culinary Olympic team: "In my opinion, one year on the Olympic team is the equivalent of five years in the industry... In doing the team you have obligations to push yourself and research more and do more and learn more than what you normally would... I've competed in Germany three times, Luxembourg twice, Basel, Switzerland, twice, and all over the United States. Seeing these other countries and the food they're putting up really makes you open up your mind and see food a little differently. There's no boundaries."

If Rosendale wins the Bocuse d'Or, or even earns a precious medal (in addition to gold, there's silver and bronze), it'll be big news here in the United States. But some similarly grand accomplishments come with no such fanfare: Percy Whatley, who competed in the Bocuse d'Or USA in 2008 and 2010, has just embarked on one of the most solitary and taxing challenges a chef can undertake: He is training for the Certified Master Chef (CMC) exam, a 130-hour, eight-day test in which he will have to demonstrate world-class proficiency in areas as far ranging as Classical Cuisine, Buffet Catering, Freestyle cooking, Global Cuisine, and Bakery and Pastry. It's not a head-to-head competition, but the training is just as intense and at the end of the day, you either win (pass) or lose (fail). I'm delighted that Whatley is publishing a diary of his training over on my site, Toqueland.

The CMC is such a tough exam that it's not regularly scheduled. You sign up and are put on the culinary equivalent of "active duty" -- waiting to be called up. Periodically, when enough aspirants are on board, the ACF schedules an exam. (Whatley is hopeful that he'll get to go for it about 16 months from now.) There's also no guarantee of success; just the opposite, in fact: in 2010, only five of twelve candidates passed. One of them was Rosendale, the U.S.'s freshly minted Bocuse d'Or candidate. Rosendale got his name in the New York Times, on NPR, and on food blogs from coast to coast (including right here on HuffPost) for being selected for the Bocuse d'Or. If anybody outside of his ACF peers knew he'd become a CMC before reading this post, I'd be surprised, and that's a shame. It's a huge achievement.

If Whatley succeeds, he'll get to wear the letters CMC on his chef jacket for the rest of his career, joining less than 70 others who have pulled off the same feat. The challenge embodies the core appeal of real culinary competitions: to push yourself to the absolute limit, whether or not the masses are watching.