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Tracking the Bocuse d'Or: Meet France's Philippe Mille

January 27, 2009 |  4:12 pm

MilleWednesday is Day 2 of the Bocuse d'Or culinary competition in Lyon, France, when favorites France, Norway, Denmark, Japan and the U.S. are scheduled to compete.

France and Norway traditionally have been the heavy hitters. But when recently asked who he thought were this year's favorites, Paul Bocuse, founder of the Bocuse d'Or, named France, Japan and the U.S. The U.S., however, has never placed better than sixth, and the only time an Asian chef made "podium" (or won at least bronze) was in 1989.

The last Bocuse d'Or winner was French chef Fabrice Desvignes, who was accused by competitors from Germany and Denmark of bringing in precooked ingredients, which is against the rules. (Contest officials determined that containers arriving late to Desvignes' kitchen cubicle were filled with only silverware and foie gras, both copacetic.)

This year's French candidate is 34-year-old Philippe Mille, a chef at Michelin three-star restaurant Le Meurice in Paris. If Mille wins, it might be redemption for his boss and mentor, Le Meurice's Yannick Alléno. In 1999, Alléno was the first French chef in the history of the competition to come in second, taking home silver when Norway snagged gold.   

Still, France has won two of the last three competitions. "This isn't a blind tasting," said Nick Versteeg, who produces documentaries about the Bocuse d'Or and other culinary competitions. "Tell me that the judges aren't influenced when France presents [its platters] and the whole stadium goes crazy." (The Bocuse d'Or isn't a staid affair; ever since Mexico's candidate showed up with a mariachi band in 1997, foghorns, cowbells, cheering and yelling from the stands have been the norm.)

From April until the competition, Mille trained at Le Meurice in Paris and at the Hôtel du Palais in Biarritz with chef Jean-Marie Gautier, a Meilleur Ouvrier de France (France's highly coveted award to top craftsmen). "I have been also given support by all the team of Le Meurice and my assistant Hugo Souchet," who will compete alongside Mille on Wednesday.

When asked how to best train for the competition, he responded: "First thing is to forget the rest of the world!"

Mille says he also spent a lot of time researching ingredients, meeting with butchers and fishmongers to get advice about the best parts of the products. "I also went to the Musée du Louvre and Musée d'Orsay to look at the shapes and colors to get ideas for my dishes," he said. "Then, I met all the former French winners who gave me advice and tips. Last but not least, I had to work with silvermakers to create two special platters." (The platters are a big deal, and the stakes have been raised since 2001, when French chef François Adamski brought out an untraditional, spectacular triangular platter that stunned the audience and judges -- he won gold.)

On Wednesday, the chef lineup is as follows: Norway, Denmark, Spain, Malaysia, Japan, U.S., Czech Republic, Canada, Singapore, France, Estonia and Mexico.

"You never want to be first and you never want to be last," says Roland Henin, coach to the U.S. competitor, Timothy Hollingsworth. "If you're first, the judges aren't warmed up yet. And if you're last, the judges are tired." (Good luck, Mexico!)

-- Betty Hallock

Photo of Philippe Mille. Credit: Le Meurice

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