GOING FOR GOLD
The World’s Top Chef Is America’s Mathew Peters
Bocuse d’Or champion Mathew Peters kept a diary for us during his gold medal-winning week.
Mathew Peters has accomplished the impossible. Last week, he won the prestigious Bocuse d’Or international cooking competition in Lyon, France.
While most Americans have never heard of the Bocuse d’Or, it is a major event in the culinary world and the results are taken quite seriously in Europe and across Scandinavia. The United States has never finished higher than second place in the 30 years since the competition began.
When I profiled 32-year-old Peters in September, I knew he had a good shot of coming home with a medal. His résumé includes stints in the kitchens of Per Se and the French Laundry, and he had beaten out top American talent in the nationals round to advance to Lyon. He prepared diligently, taking off the last year to train full time in a practice kitchen set up by the Ment’or BKB Foundation, founded by star chefs Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, and Jérôme Bocuse, son of Paul Bocuse, founder of the Bocuse d’Or. The organization provided Peters with financial support, advice, coaching, and, naturally, mentoring.
But the Bocuse d’Or is not just a cooking competition—it is a test of both physical and mental fortitude. Peters and his deputy, Harrison Turone, had five hours and 35 minutes to create two elaborate platters in an arena full of spectators who spent most of the allotted time screaming, singing, and blowing horns.
A lot can go wrong when you’re expected to create beautiful and delicious dishes in front of your cooking heroes. (No sweat, right?) But Peters and Turone were able to pull it off and top the 23 other teams in the competition. I asked chef Peters to keep a diary of his gold medal-winning week—from workouts at the gym to the little things that made a big difference to how it felt when the medal was won.
THURSDAY, JAN. 19
We arrived today in Lyon! We split the team between three different houses, spreading out team members, coaches, and spouses. Our Airbnb was an incredible home we found tucked away in Chaponost. The hosts were incredibly accommodating, and we hope to use their home again for future years. We chose Chaponost as it was less than a few miles from our training facility, C-Gastronomie. Our day consisted of getting settled in, unpacking our gear in the training kitchen, and getting ready for the week to come.
While Harrison Turone (my commis) and I are the only ones who will actually be competing, our support team is much larger. First and foremost is our head coach, Phil Tessier, who was crucial in opening the door for the United States to move up to the main podium stage. Having won silver in 2015, he now sets us up for success as our coach and will be there on competition day to guide us through our run to make sure we are on time at every step. There is also a group of five young chefs that have been with us day in and day out: Will Mouchet (sous chef at the French Laundry), Chance Schwaub (chef de partie at Per Se), Vincenzo Loseto (chef de partie at the NoMad), Daniel Garcia (sous chef at the NoMad) and Mimi Chen (commis at Daniel). They each took time off from their day-to-day jobs to come live out in Napa Valley and be part of our team. They were there on scholarships from Ment’or, and their support was crucial.
Our assistant coach Robert Sulatycky was with us every step of the way as well, giving us invaluable advice and moral support. And, of course, I cannot forget the crucial detail team: Martin Kastner, Lukas Kastner, and Graham Burns, who created and transported the physical platter we will be using in the competition to plate our dishes! Over the last six months, they have worked tirelessly to perfect our platter, and we cannot wait to plate the final dish for the world to see. I consider them every bit a part of the team as the rest of us. Many more chefs helped along the way, such as Matt Kirkley, Brian Lockwood, Dave Beran, Richard Rosendale, and, of course, the heads of Ment’or—Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, and Gavin Kaysen.
Having the entire team here in Lyon allows Harrison and me to concentrate on the main goal—winning gold. All of the extra hands help with organizing, transporting, making family meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and keeps our morale up!
Chef Sulatycky is cooking for us tonight. He competed in the Bocuse d’Or in 1999 and placed fourth. He has also coached and judged other Canadian and U.S. teams, including the one Tessier was on in 2015. Tonight, we enjoyed grilled ham hocks with lentil stew, roasted vegetables, and fresh baguettes from a local boulangerie.
FRIDAY, JAN. 20
We start every morning by going to the gym as a team at 6 a.m. We have been doing this for the past year not only to stay in shape physically but mentally as well. It prepares us for an early start and a long day, like we will be doing during the competition.
After our workout and breakfast as a team, we head to our training kitchen to run through the pack-up and load-in process. This consists of packing up the entire practice kitchen, loading it into a truck, driving around a bit to make sure everything is secure, and then unloading everything back into the practice kitchen. On competition day, we’ll only have 45 minutes to load everything into the arena kitchen, so every detail is planned very precisely. We want to be as prepared as we can, so practice makes perfect.
SATURDAY, JAN. 21
An early morning gym session is followed by team breakfast, then off to our training kitchen at 7:30 a.m. for the last run-through. The team goes over our mise en place [basic ingredient setup], making sure we are ready to go by 8:40 a.m., just like on competition day.
We have been training with loud music to mimic the deafening sound of the crowd’s cheering. We believe that if we can concentrate, talk to each other, and execute our dishes with barely being able to hear ourselves think, we can do the same on competition day.
Before each run we actually have a bit of a pump-up routine, including team pushups, watching a 10-minute motivational video by Arnold Schwarzenegger, and listening to Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike’s session at Live from Tomorrowland 2016. This soundtrack was chosen by none other than our team DJ, Vincenzo Loseto. It all sounds cheesy, but it actually gave us something fun to bond over as a team and helps to lighten the mood.
After our practice run, we went back and had a team meeting, discussing each detail of the run, both the successes and any failures. But to be honest, there isn’t much room for mistakes and changes at this point. We have to trust our instincts and let our skills guide us, as we only have one more run to go—the one that counts.
Tonight, Chance and Daniel made our staff meal—penne with fresh marinara and comte cheese, salad, and a nice red wine to relax us from our day. My wife, Lorin, arrived tonight, and she will be staying with me the rest of the trip. She is my biggest supporter, and it is nice to have her here to unwind with. She will also be a stickler about making sure I get enough rest rather than stay awake and think about the competition.
SUNDAY, JAN. 22
Our normal routine stays the course with gym, followed by breakfast and a team meeting. Today is the day we prep for our final run.
Tonight was our welcome dinner at Comptoir L’est, hosted by Ment’or. Our families, team members, and fans were in attendance, as well as many supporting chefs from the United States. We enjoyed traditional Lyonnaise dishes including poulet aux ecrevisses, which the main meat platter of the competition is based on. Chefs Keller and Boulud gave speeches, building confidence and excitement for the team.
MONDAY, JAN. 23
Today we went to the Eurexpo to join the other teams. We received our official Bragard chef jackets for the competition and shopped for our produce from the Metro Market. We were only allowed to bring two items from the United States that weren’t on the Metro Market produce list. We chose delta asparagus and green almonds. The rest we gathered from the market alongside our competitors.
Tonight, Harrison and I had a quiet family meal back at the house while chefs Keller and Boulud ate with our supporters at Paul Bocuse’s L’Auberge and our coach, Phil Tessier, attended a party at Paul Bocuse’s L’Abbaye for everybody who has ever won a medal in the competition’s 30-year history.
TUESDAY, JAN. 24
Today was all about prepping and packing. We prepped final details and packed our van like we had practiced. We took off for the arena as the load-in time we were given was 7:40 p.m. Each team is allowed an hour in their booth the night before the competition to set up their equipment and food. After we were done, all we could do was go to sleep and get ready for game day!
WEDNESDAY, JAN. 25
Today we were out the door by 6 a.m. By the way, the sun does not rise in Lyon until about 8 a.m.…
We are allowed in our booth at 7:40 a.m. for one hour to organize ourselves, clean and trim vegetables, but not fully cut or prep them, and get ready for the clock to tell us to GO!
At 8:40 a.m. we are off! The entire time, our booth was surrounded by dozens of chefs, members of the media, judges, etc. While one would think it would be distracting, Harrison and I didn’t lift our heads up once. We kept focused and blocked out the noise just like we had practiced. Our vegan dish went up perfectly, and we were so proud to finally show the world the first glimpse of what we have been working on for so many months. We had no time to think about it any longer, it was back to work on our meat platter. We pushed hard and worked through the challenges, but no matter how the allotted five hours and 35 minutes went, it would naturally come down to the last few seconds.
Everything must be on the platter ON TIME. You then have exactly three minutes to get your food out promptly and hot. The hot component was very important to us. Your dish could be perfect, but if your food is not hot, it will not taste as it should. Martin Kastner and his crucial detail team created heating elements under our platter that kept our food hot till it made it to the judges’ plates, which kept us confident that our flavors would shine. Many people assume that this competition is just about how things look, but that is far from what this competition is about. The Bocuse d’Or combines beauty and flavor, which is why it is more rigorous than most competitions. It has to look like a piece of art while tasting like something you would crave to eat over and over again.
As our last plate went out to the judges, I heard the roar of the USA fans and my heart finally stopped pounding. We were finished. All of that, and we were finally finished.
My wife came backstage and took me out to our family and friends in the stands. I wanted to share the moment with them, as we had more than 200 fans come from all over the United States—Pennsylvania, New York, California, Nebraska, Texas, to name a few. It was heartwarming that people had spent time and money to come support us for this one day, the most important day of the year for us.
When the ceremony began and it was announced that Iceland took bronze and Norway took silver, our hearts were racing. Harrison, Phil, Thomas, and I all gripped each other in anticipation. And the winner is...THE UNITED STATES! Harrison took off like a wild man waving the American flag. Phil, Thomas, and I were close behind running together with our arms wrapped around each other. We had done it. After all that hard work, we had won gold. Tears were in everyone’s eyes as we were filled with pride and heard our fans cheering as loud as ever. While I try my best, I could never fully recreate those feelings in words.
But I did not win this alone. Harrison, our team of chefs, our coaches, our crucial detail team, and the rest of our supporters brought us to the top of the podium. We finally showed the world that the United States is a top contender in the world of gastronomy.
One more accomplishment that we gained at that moment was fulfilling our promise to Monsieur Paul Bocuse. When we won silver in 2015, Bocuse whispered in chef Keller’s ear, “gold.” We did it, Monsieur Paul!
We celebrated that night back at Comptoir de l’Est until early the next morning with friends, family, chefs, and supporters from around the world. We drank Champagne, played the National Anthem a few times, and just enjoyed our well-earned downtime.
THURSDAY, JAN. 26
We arrived at Bocuse’s restaurant at 9:30 a.m. for the winners’ breakfast and plaque ceremony. In front of his restaurant is a walk of fame, of sorts, that displays the plaques of all the previous winners from the last 30 years. It is an honor that my name will now be part of this history.
That afternoon, we packed up our things and shipped them back to the U.S.
Our final dinner was fittingly back at Bocuse’s restaurant for 24 of the core team members. We told stories from the past year and began looking forward to Team USA 2019!
We again thank every sponsor and fan, family members and chefs from around the United States. We couldn’t have done it without you.