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June 27, 2017

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The Venetian:

Q+A: Chef Thomas Keller discusses Ment’Or, Bocuse D’Or and Ultimo

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The Bocuse D’Or Finale from Jan. 27-28, 2015, in Lyon, France.

2015 Bocuse D’Or Finale

The Bocuse D’Or Finale from Jan. 27-28, 2015, in Lyon, France. Launch slideshow »

Dario Cecchini

2014 Ultimo Grand Banquet

The 2014 Ultimo Grand Banquet hosted by star chefs Emeril Lagasse, Buddy Valastro and Daniel Boulud on Friday, Dec. 5, 2014, at the Venetian. Launch slideshow »

Four days and nights of extraordinary gourmet feasting are set for today and this weekend with the Ultimo events at the Venetian highlighted by Friday night’s Grand Banquet, which star chef Mario Batali has described as “the grandest meal ever served in Las Vegas.”

Only 120 guests paying $1,000 each will sit down on acrylic, clear-view chairs at one long glass table above billowing dry-ice smoke in the main lobby colonnade as if they were dining in clouds. But before we get to those details, there’s a more intriguing story behind the event that kicks it all off today. Proceeds from Grand Banquet fund the Ment’Or culinary charitable foundation that supports the U.S. entry into the “food Olympics” known as the Bocuse D’Or.

In 30 years of competition, America never placed until star chef Thomas Keller, widely regarded as America’s best chef, became involved with his support and mentorship. In January for the first time, Team USA placed second, receiving a silver medal in Lyon, France. It was the first year that Americans placed higher than sixth. Among the 24 countries, Norway won gold and Sweden bronze.

Four U.S. chefs and their assistants are the finalists who will compete in the national selection to become the next Team USA and will represent America at the 2017 Bocuse D’Or biennial competition in Lyon.

The four competitors are Gerald Ford of Westchester New York; Brian Lockwood of The NoMad, New York; Angus McIntosh of The Broadmoor in Colorado; and Mathew Peters from Thomas Keller’s Per Se in Manhattan. Mathew was formerly here where he worked at Andre Rochat’s restaurants at the Palms, Monte Carlo and downtown and at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon.

Thomas will not be a member of the judging panel but will host with star chef Daniel Boulud and Jerome Bocuse, son of Paul Bocuse for whom the world food Olympics are named. The Culinary Council of judges includes Venetian executive chef Olivier Dubreuil, celebrity chefs Traci Des Jardins and Ming Tsai, with food experts Josiah Citrin, Shaun Hergatt, Gabriel Kreuther, Barbara Lynch, Roland Passot, Richard Rosendale, Alain Sailhac and Robert Sulatycky.

The head coach of Team USA 2017 will be chef Phil Tessier, who won silver in 2014, and his commis, or range chef, Skylar Stover from Thomas’ French Laundry in Napa Valley in Yountville, Calif.

Jerome commented: “My father’s vision was to showcase the culinary traditions of each country. The winner of our USA selection unites the best of American and French culture, something for which we are extremely proud.”

I flew to California to talk with Thomas ahead of today’s spectacular displays of culinary skill and artistry during the 4-hour and 35-minute contest. Each candidate will prepare a meat platter showcasing Kurobuta pork and fish dish featuring Norwegian fjord trout.

Thomas told me, “Ment’Or is the foundation that supports Bocuse d’Or Team USA, which is still the name that we use and will always use. Our national competition at the Venetian will feature four chefs who have been chosen through a process of application and conversations, no cooking yet. This will be the first time that they’ve cooked for us. Only one of these four will go to France.”

What are the qualifications for one of these four to become the American finalist?

Their applications were successfully entered. We reviewed probably 12 applications. The board, which is Daniel, Jerome and myself, deemed these four the most qualified. You look at their history, positions, where they are working. What their philosophy is on food, what is the integrity of what they are doing. We have a conversation with them so that we can understand their personalities and what is important to them. What they will be looking for in how they build their team. Many things go into the process of defining who they are.

The winner will represent America in Lyon. He will go there with his commis. They come to Las Vegas with their commis. Each of them has to bring their commis who has to be under 21 years of age during the competition in Lyon. Whoever wins will spend two months working with their coach on their concept and the board. Because we won’t know the proteins.

They’ll start working on their garnishes and techniques they want to employ. Their philosophy about what they will want to achieve. Then they will move here to Napa Valley and the Bocuse d’Or training next door for 8 months during the training, then we’ll take them to France. So what will they take with them? Hopefully they will take with them a high level of skills that we’ve practiced with them over and over and over again.

You obviously know Mathew’s work?

Yes, Mathew has been working for us for about 8 years now. He spent 3 years at French Andre. In fact, he met his wife here.

His food, your food, is so unique. How do you decide whether Gerald, Brian or Angus stack up to that kind of challenge?

It won’t be my decision. We’ve taken 12 chefs from the culinary council and do as they do it in Lyon. We do it with twice as many as Lyon: Six judges will judge the fish protein and six judges will judge the meat protein. It’s based on flavor, temperature, technique, composition, seasoning.

Then there will be judges in the kitchen watching as they work. Judging their cleanliness, utilization of product, making sure they utilize everything and not just throwing things in the garbage because sustainability is everything. They get judged on a lot of things. Their commis will be judged, on his ability to work well and seamlessly with the chef. There are several criteria they will be judged on throughout the 5 hours that they are going to be cooking.

The competition at the Venetian will be set up a lot like Lyon with 12 judges: six judging each protein. I am not one of the judges. No one on the board will be judging. Some of the culinary council chefs, Josiah, Traci, Olivier, will serve as judges for Las Vegas.

Is this the toughest food competition in the world?

Because of the length of time, the level of expectations in technique, in seasoning and cooking and flavor and all those things that go into judging a dinner. This is very important to them. So, yes, it is a very tough competition, and they have had a relatively short period of time to prepare for it. Certainly whoever is chosen will have plenty of time to prepare for Lyon — January 2017.

What was it that Paul Bocuse had that made you look up to him as the ultimate culinary benchmark?

He was the first chef to do so many things. And if you look at his generation, they did so many things to change the way we eat food. Prior to Paul Bocuse, things were served in the dining room by the captain. The garret would come out, carve the roast, serve the potatoes. Bocuse changed all of that. Paul said we were going to be responsible for how the food is plated in the kitchen. That was a major thing. But Paul was somebody who really mentored so many chefs, and he was mentored by Fernand Point.

So you think about his history in America, in the culinary world and how he embraced our country as his second home. He was wounded in WWII and taken to a U.S. Army field hospital and given a blood transfusion and claims to this day has American blood running through his veins. He has the American flag above his restaurant. He no longer cooks there, but he lives there. He always says that the only thing in his restaurant that has changed is the sheets on his bed. He basically lives in the room where he was born.

And Jerome now runs the restaurant?

Jerome runs the Bocuse restaurant in Epcot Center in Orlando and is now taking over the restaurant group from Paul. He’s taken over Paul’s position at the Bocuse d’Or competition.

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Phil Tessier.

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The meat platter by Team USA at the Bocuse D’Or Finale from Jan. 27-28, 2015, in Lyon, France.

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The fish plate by Team USA at the Bocuse D’Or Finale from Jan. 27-28, 2015, in Lyon, France.

Click to enlarge photo

The Bocuse D’Or Finale from Jan. 27-28, 2015, in Lyon, France.

So 5 hours to do a meal: half fish, half meat?

That is enough. They’ll each have the same protein, but they’re allowed to identify their own garnishes. If you want to use peas, mushrooms, there will be three garnishes they will have to complete as part of the competition. And each one of those three garnishes will be whatever they deem as acceptable as part of what they will be judged on as part of the competition. The cooking technique will be up to them, as well. Whether they want to poach, roast, saute, grill. Whatever they want. They’ve known for about a month now what the protein will be.

Why is it so difficult? Why is it that up until you got involved, America never placed, then won silver?

It’s tough because it requires a lot of technique. It requires a lot of diligence and achieving almost perfection. You’re competing with 23 other countries and some of them extraordinary countries who have been at this for a long time. We have to make sure that we are living by the quality of the ingredients. That really is the important thing. The highest numbers that are rewarded are for flavor. So we have to remember that. We have to make sure that you are using techniques that are going to enhance those flavors but at the same time enhance the experience for the judges.

That has to do with presentation and certainly technique and making sure you are using as many techniques as you can. It’s not just sautéing a piece of fish and placing it on a bed of pasta. The more techniques you can get in the composition and even the more difficult, you will be scored higher on that. So it’s like doubles skating. The moves and techniques are very specific of what they have to do throughout their program, and if they don’t do them, they are scored lower. Same thing in the Bocuse d’Or.

Is 5 hours a long time for a chef to do this meal?

Not really because you have to come in basically with everything in place. You have to start from scratch. So if you’re going to braise something, imagine they have to employ a pressure cooker. So learning how to use a pressure cooker is one thing they have to achieve.

But physically 5 hours standing up cooking one meal?

That’s less than a normal day. The pressure of it is extreme. Certainly in Lyon we have 7,000 to 8,000 people in the stands watching and cheering for their countries.

Why is it that America never did very well in the past?

For the first 22 years, there really wasn’t any foundation of support. It was really ad hoc. There was a hotel show in Chicago where they would qualify, then basically left on their own to raise money, design platters, build everything and train. We got involved and since 2009 have been supporting the team with the financial needs and coaching resources. It’s a big responsibility. We were new at it; just Daniel, Jerome and I. We had no foundation. We had to build it up.

We won silver with our fourth team, our fourth attempt, which is not bad! Thirty years, and we finally got on the podium. Just the pride that we had, standing there in front of Paul’s restaurant, and they’re putting the plaque down, putting in our chef Philip Tessier’s name in the walkway, for the first time ever. Those moments in our history are just extraordinary.

Is it also because of people like you and Daniel who have raised the level of American cuisine?

I think that is part of it. We try to exemplify what the path is. We are of an age where we can do that. When we were younger, we were working. Now we’re able to mentor the younger ones. We have more resources, more time. Now we are able to encourage young chefs to do this. It’s a really wonderful thing to do.

Can we win gold? Can the winning chef here in Las Vegas go on to win it all?

Yes. It was fascinating because the headlines in the French newspaper the next day was, “Paul’s dream realized. American on the podium.” It wasn’t really about the winner. Paul’s dream realized. American on the podium. Imagine that. Paul’s dream realized. That’s a huge thing. So I went up to him, we had gotten close over the years. I had promised him 9 years earlier that we would get on the podium one day.

So I went up to him and told him how much I loved him and appreciated him and said, “We fulfilled our goal, our promise. We’re on the podium.” And do you know what he said to me? He said, “Gold.” As if to say you haven’t fulfilled your promise, you’ve gotta get gold! So we’re back at it this year.

So can we win gold? You know, it’s like a baseball team. You go out there every day thinking you’re going to win, but you’re playing another team. You don’t know what they’re going to bring. There are 23 other countries out there, and we don’t know what they’re bringing.

Which countries have scored the most over the years?

Norway has done the best. They won the gold this year. We were only behind them by 7 points. They’ve been on the podium five times!

You don’t think of Norway as the food center of the universe. What have they got?

They have great organization. They have support from their government, from the profession. It’s extraordinary in Europe. You come back from winning Bocuse d’Or, and you’re a national hero. It’s like you’ve just won Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. It’s not like that here. Philip came back to a mediocre, lukewarm reception with people asking, “So what’s the Bocuse d’Or?”

I don’t think the majority of the people, even foodies, know.

Right, so we’re trying to build the awareness of it. Make people realize that this is their team. This is the United States of America Culinary Team. This is why we compete. Not for me, but for our country.

So it’s conceivable that one of these four who come to Las Vegas win, compete in Lyon and win gold to come back as the best chef in the world?

No, it doesn’t make them the best chef in the world. It makes them the best chef on that day in that venue in that competition.

Is there such a thing as a best chef in the world?

You know there’s not. I think there’s the Top 20, Top 30, whatever, but if there’s a million chefs and if you were in the Top 40 or 50, would you be happy? Yeah! What’s best? You don’t qualify that. You can qualify that in sports. A golfer can be qualified as No. 1 or a tennis player because there are statistics that result in that position. But with a chef, there are no statistics. It is subjective. Paul Bocuse says, “If your restaurant is full every night, you are successful. If your restaurant is empty, better find someone else.”

Is this a big deal for Las Vegas to host this?

I think so. I think it is great for Las Vegas to host this. No. 1, it gives us a great amount of opportunity. We’re doing it at the Venetian where Daniel and I both have restaurants. Rob Goldstein is a great friend of ours. Sheldon Adelson is one of our partners. Sebastien Silvestri is a colleague of ours. We’re doing this in a casino or a hotel that we’ve all been in for a long time.

Will the chefs involved with Bocuse d’Or look down at the guy who comes from a Las Vegas runway?

I don’t think so. There will be upmost respect for what he creates.

* * *

Right after the Team USA selection, the first dinner of the Ultimo four days of indulgence and bliss weekend of excellence will be served under the theme of Earth — wild game and Urbani truffles — to 200 guests by chefs Jerome Bocuse, Traci Des Jardins and Josiah Citrin.

Friday night is the four-hour Grand Banquet with chefs Shaun Hergatt, Phil Tessier, Ming Tsai and Thomas Keller and dessert by Jean Philippe Maury. I will MC the evening for 120 guests who will enjoy the Air-themed evening with “Dinner in the Clouds.” Lydia Ansel will perform her DJ duties and an electric violin performance in addition to accompanying Christina Grimmie of “The Voice.”

On Saturday to celebrate Water, there will be a floating luncheon for 50 guests riding in the gondolas of the Grand Canal to a slightly submerged, clear acrylic platform.

Then to celebrate Fire and mastery of cooking over open flame, the romantic outdoor piazza at the Doges Palace entrance to the Venetian will host dinner guests right on the Strip. They will sip Krug champagne and watch huge pieces of fish and a traditional full-size pig roast on open flames. Chef Olivier Dubreuil will join forces with Dario Cecchini, the “Butcher of Panzano” from Chianti, Italy. His wife Kim and he, who can name Elton John, Sting and Prince Charles as customers, have flown over from Florence for Ultimo.

There’s a farewell brunch Sunday at star chef Emeril Lagasse’s Delmonico. The menu will feature Urbani truffles, organic farm-fresh eggs, premium beef, house-cured salmon, lobster, black truffle duck and Krug.

Sebastien, food & beverage VP for the Venetian and Palazzo, summed up: “There’s never been a four-day food weekend like this ever in Las Vegas. We have the best food stars in the world, the best wines and champagne in the world and the opportunity to send a winning chef to the Bocuse D’Or and bring home the gold! This all speaks volumes for Las Vegas and the Venetian.”

Robin Leach of “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous” fame has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past 15 years giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Las Vegas Sun Entertainment + Luxury Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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