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Chef Phil Tessier, left, with his commis, Skylar Stover, on the right.

U.S. Chefs and Cuisine Gain Global Respect

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Chef Philip Tessier talks about bringing home the Silver statue from the 2015 Bocuse d’Or and the many benefits of the ment’or organization.

The Bocuse d’Or competition held biennially in Lyon France, is considered the Olympics of culinary competitions. In 2015, Team USA placed among the top three for the first time, bringing home the coveted Silver Bocuse statue along with an elevated respect for American cuisine and American chefs. Chef Phil Tessier, formerly executive sous chef at The French Laundry, and his young commis, Skylar Stover, led Team USA to the unprecedented victory. Chef Tessier, who now serves as coach for Team USA in the 2017 Bocuse d’Or, talks with FSR about the experience:

How did that mentor relationship begin, and how did you come to be on the Bocuse d’Or team together?

I had gone to the competition in 2013, and being there and being surrounded by the people there was very exciting. It was something that I always thought I would love to do, but didn’t expect to have the opportunity to do. When I saw the support and structure that ment’or had created, it made it possible for me to do it. Part of the application process is choosing a commis—which is an apprentice—and that person had to be 22 years old or younger at the time of the competition in France. So, that meant I was looking for someone who was essentially 20 to 21 at the time. At the restaurant—at The French Laundry [where Phil Tessier was executive sous chef]—Skylar was the right age. And, he had demonstrated his ability to take instruction, to follow tasks, and to do it well. That was kind of the initial conversation.

What was Skylar’s reaction to the idea?

I think—because I kept asking when his birthday was—he thought I was going to buy him a birthday present or something like that. When I sat down with him and asked him what he thought of competing in the Bocuse d’Or, he had no idea what he was saying “yes” to. It was more like: “Chef is asking me to do something; I should do it.”

I wanted to make sure he knew what he was getting into, so I sent him home, told him to read up, watch some stuff on it, and come back with a firm answer. Of course, he came back and wanted to do it.

What did you think, starting out?

In the beginning, for me, it was kind of a challenge because we’d only known each other for two or three months at the time. … And this was a huge commitment, not only from both of us, but also the resources, the time of others in the group, and the team. The crazy part about the competition—for someone like me, who had been cooking for nearly 20 years—was that you set aside your whole career for a year and a half to dedicate to this competition. When you do that, you are going to prepare yourself in every way possible. But no matter what you do, half of what happens the day of the competition falls into the hands of a 22-year-old. It’s a pretty daunting task to take someone with a relatively small amount of experience and work with him in such a way that he is personally and highly motivated, that he will have the endurance and perseverance to get through it, and to come out on the other side of the training, not only with a fresh attitude towards it, but also with a sense of confidence, determination, and excitement.

How did that play out?

I’ll tell you: It was a bumpy road. Because, it’s one of those things where you don’t want to look back and think, “I wish I’d done that, or we should have done this, or we should have pushed harder.” In the beginning, it was kind of a slow and steady pace. You have to be really patient to develop ideas and refine them. But, there comes a point—for us it was really late September, when [the competition] announced the proteins that everyone would use—and that point is the first time you get real, tangible information. That is when you can really begin to dig in and your timed training runs begin to start. I saw a big shift when Skylar went from working part-time in the restaurant to working full-time with me. It was a big change: It was just the two of us every day. You’re not always seeing immediate results. And it becomes a mental game.

That was probably the biggest challenge for Skylar—and the biggest challenge for me to work with him on—to develop the mental fortitude.

Tell us more about the aspect of mental fortitude.

It’s not only the training, the process of development, and the crazy amount of hours and [resources] we put into it: When you come to the actual competition, you are in a 3-by-6-meter box for basically six and a half hours, with all these famous chefs around your box, with video crews and photographers, and with an [audience] of 2,500 people who are literally screaming like they’re at a sporting event. And you have to arrive at that moment where basically the world doesn’t exist. You just focus on what you are doing.

Again, think about taking a 22-year-old to that moment, putting all of your hope and faith into him. Doing that was a huge task.

Clearly, you and Skylar made that moment work.

I think overall we had a lot of fun. … And there were also moments when it seemed the wheels were coming off, that this might not go through. But we had decided we were going to do whatever we could to make ourselves better for that day, and part of that was physical training. We got into CrossFit, which we did four or five days a week. I’ll never forget the first day that Skylar went out to [train] with me. I looked over at him after we ran the first leg and asked if he was OK. He said, “I thought I was going to die.”

Do you exercise regularly?

I’ve always played soccer, run, and done sports. Now, it’s more about finding the time to do it. But for a good year and a half, Skylar and I stuck with it solidly. And it was great to see, toward the end, that he was doing it on his own. In the beginning, I was pushing him through it, saying “Come on, we’re doing this at 6 o’clock every morning.” Eventually he began to see the benefits, what it did for him, and the mental clarity that it brought him.

Another thing: There was no alcohol; I didn’t drink for 22 months and I told Skylar he had to follow suit, which he did.

Training for the competition truly was comprehensive.

Oh yes, and then we had to do French lessons. The competition takes place in Lyon, France, and the ability to speak the language is a huge thing. I had some good background in French because I’d lived there for six months; but (laughing) I will say French is the one thing that Skylar did not excel at. We had a great French teacher and it became an hour of the week that everyone looked forward to, but French is not a native tongue for Skylar by any means.

It was just all these things that we did to work together. This training is very different than your normal relationships in the kitchen, where you have quite a few individuals you’re working with, and you want to mentor each of them, but you never get to this kind of depth. This becomes, to a large degree, a life-mentoring opportunity. It goes much deeper than just a professional relationship.

The great thing is: We came out on the other side having been very successful, and looking back on the year, there was also a big shift that had to take place on my end.

Can you tell us about that transition?

For a long time, it was [me saying]: “Push harder. Do more. You’ve got to be better. You have to be faster. You have to be more diligent. You have to be inspired. You have to be teachable. You have to learn.” It was that drilling over and over again. But there’s a point in the training, near the end, where I had to shift gears from pushing along to beginning to become that team. We had to gel as those two guys.

Was there a specific turning point?

We took a practice trip to France in November [2014] and that experience was a real struggle. I think it really impacted Skylar to realize the scale and the magnitude [of what we were working for], all the work that goes into the competition, and what can happen when you don’t succeed. Failure is a great motivator, and he did not want to feel that again—the struggle that we had on that trip. When he came back, he was a different person—highly motivated to be the best.

Towards the end, we had gone from “I’m the master; you’re the pupil,” to “We’re on the same team. It’s you and me versus the world.”

That day in the box, when we were getting ready to start, I told him, “There’s nobody else I’d rather have in this kitchen right now than you.”

It was true: He really came to fruition and peaked at the right moment. I knew that he was going to do a great job because I knew he was motivated and ready.

Aside from the passion, drive, and skills, does he have other personality traits that made him the right commis?

One of the great things about Skylar, for better or worse, is that he was never intimidated by anyone. Chef Keller could come into the kitchen and Skylar would just say, “Hey, chef.” He wasn’t one of those people who would start freaking out; he was just oblivious to people around him for a large part of the training, including the day of the competition. And it served him well. He never showed signs of nervousness.

How did you help him develop confidence and how did you develop confidence in him so that you were able to make that transition to working as a team?

I think a lot of prayer and faith. Also, in October [2014], I hired two other guys who were formerly at The French Laundry and Bouchon Bistro. They came on our team full-time to handle getting all the equipment, the logistics, prepping food, and all the cleaning that had to happen. They helped bring a better balance and dynamic to the team. When it was just the two of us, it became very evident that it was going to be an unhealthy training—not for any particular reason other than we needed to bring in other people and have that support. Once we brought them in, the young man closer to Skylar’s age also became a mentor for him. This was good because one of the challenges that Skylar faced was that competitions weren’t necessarily his thing. … He would be just as happy to go fishing. So he needed kind of a push to say, “Hey, this is your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You’ve got to make this happen.” Between them coaching him along, and being a support structure for him, [the motivation] became his own decision. They were there to remind him: “You only have three more months, and whatever happens at the end of that three months, you’re going to have with you for the rest of your life.”

For me, it was knowing we had to commit to [the competition] and then seeing that shift in Skylar when it became evident he was really into it, really ready. That was the opportunity that I had say, “It’s you and me; this is it; we’re the guys.”

Once he saw that he had my support and my confidence, he went from “Do I have to do this?” to “What do you need, what’s next?”

And now, there’s a huge amount of satisfaction, and gratitude that we were successful, and excitement to see the way [this experience] has helped to shape Skylar.

After the competition, he went back home to spend time with his family, then came and worked with me for about six months before heading to Spain where he is working [as of November] at El Celler de can Roca, which was ranked the best restaurant in the world at the international awards ceremony held June 1 in London. (Located in Girona, Spain, El Celler de can Roca won recognition as the No. 1 restaurant on the 2015 list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, which is determined by a voting panel of more than 950 food experts, writers, chefs, and restaurateurs.) Skylar will be there for five months, and then he is going to Amass Restaurant in Copenhagen for another two months after that—certainly good opportunities for him.

Do you miss working with him?

Yes. After working so closely together for a year and a half, you take it for granted. When you work that closely with someone, you don’t even realize that you’re communicating without saying anything. Pretty much constantly, the way you work together and the ability to understand one another is just how you want it to be. I did an event last night with some new guys who just started working with me and it made me realize that it just gelled when Skylar and I worked together. Skylar and I did a dinner not too long ago for about 10 people and it was just super seamless. You miss that relationship, having worked so hard for it and built it really strongly, and then all of a sudden you have to kick him out of the nest a little bit. I’m really happy for him, for the life experience he is having now, and excited to see what he comes back with. But yes, he certainly became part of the family here, with my kids, and everyone. I’m looking forward to hearing his stories, and you’ll never know when you’ll end up working together again down the road.

The Bocuse d’Or competition clearly has benefitted Skylar, but you’ve also said that it is an opportunity to elevate American cuisine and American chefs. Can you talk about that?

Absolutely. Two weeks ago I was invited to go to Norway and be a part of the Norwegian national selection process for their Bocuse d’Or candidate [for the 2017 competition]. For them to reach out to us is a huge honor; it shows a huge amount of respect from them to recognize America in this way. The Norwegian group has won six gold medals (including the Gold medal last year) and is the dominant force to a large degree, for them to invite us to be part of that judging experience is a huge honor to us.

It also seems like those of us in America need to have a better understanding and appreciation of what the Bocuse d’Or entails.

I think the Bocuse d’Or is largely unknown in this country, despite all of the culinary channels that are dedicated 24/7 to this industry, and the myriad competitions on them, I think there’s a disconnect [where the Bocuse d’Or is concerned]. In America, we haven’t been given a lot of opportunity to see the Bocuse d’Or competition live and to understand it—you don’t go watch curling in the Olympics without someone telling you what’s happening. Until you understand what that guy is doing with a broom on the ice it just looks crazy. As chefs we have a huge obstacle to be able to offer this competition in such a way that the American audience will be excited about it.

But all of that to say, when it comes to how it is recognized in Europe—the competition to select the best chef in Norway was on national television [in that country] and you see how important the competition is to those countries. … Now that the U.S. team won the silver medal, when we go back wearing the Bocuse d’Or Team USA jackets people will be expecting something from us, they will have a sense of respect for us.

You are the coach for 2017 competition, so does that mean your restaurant career is still on hold?

It’s just temporarily on pause. I didn’t want to come back and jump right into a restaurant. You need to take a breath after this type of thing, so I moved into a consulting role until March, and then the goal for me is to work on the consulting project in a part-time role, pursue the coaching commitment, and begin developing a restaurant. Right now, I’m also working on a book.

Will your restaurant be in California?

It seems to be leaning that way; it will depend on location and what’s available to us.

And the book?

We’re putting the proposal in front of publishers, and hopefully it will be available in November.

How busy you are! Is there anything you would add?

I think when you look at the mentoring aspect of all this, the one thing we didn’t talk about is the mentoring above my level: It’s an extraordinary opportunity for chefs like Chef Keller and all of the coaches involved. Watching all the [renowned] chefs come together for the competitions—they love it; they love to be able to give back and be a part of helping develop younger chefs’ lives. Ment’or is a young organization that is a great thing for chefs to be a part of, and I’m looking forward to more of our culinary community coming on board.

The non-profit ment’or BKB Foundation, created by chefs Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, and Jérôme Bocuse (son of Chef Paul Bocuse), seeks to inspire culinary excellence in young professionals and preserve the traditions and quality of classic cuisine in America. It provides unique educational opportunities, as well as access to a Culinary Council of renowned chefs who serve as mentors, and also sponsors the Bocuse d’Or Team USA. www.mentorbkb.org

By Connie Gentry