Singapore is gunning for gold once again today—this time at the Bocuse d’Or culinary competition held in Lyon, France. If we have our wish, what a way it will be to start the year!
The Bocuse d’Or is probably the most highly anticipated culinary competition in the world.
Unlike other culinary competitions that are mostly a team sport, the Bocuse d’Or is an individual competition. Launched in 1987 and named after legendary French chef Paul Bocuse, it brings together the best young chefs in French cuisine from around the world, each chosen after rigorous national and regional selections. The finals take place every two years in Lyon, the home base of chef Bocuse, in a gruelling ‘live’ competition that stretches over five hours, watched and cheered on by an enthusiastic audience of more than 2,000, many whom would have travelled from across the globe to support their candidate.
The prize? A golden effigy of Mr Bocuse and €20,000. It’s not much on paper, but for the chefing fraternity, it’s an honour that money can’t buy. Chef Rasmus Kofoed of Copenhangen’s three-Michelin star restaurant Geranium took part in the competition three times before he finally won the gold in 2011. There’s plenty at stake: national pride, individual achievement and the crown of being the best young chef in French cuisine in the world.
The last Singaporean to step on the winners’ podium of the Bocuse d’Or was William Wai. The year was 1989 and Wai was just 30-year-old then. He was working at the Compass Rose restaurant in the Westin Stamford & Plaza Hotel at the time, and was personally trained by chef Otto Weibel, former president of the Singapore Chefs’ Association (1991-2006) and honorary president of Bocuse d’Or Asia Pacific. Wai went in with little or no expectations, and against all odds, he took the bronze. He was the first Asian to step on the podium, and for the longest time, he remained the only one until Japanese chef Noriyuki Hamada came in third in 2013.
“It’s French cuisine,” says current president of the Bocuse d’Or Academy Singapore chef Bruno Menard matter-of-factly, when asked if the competition favours the West. “It is far easier for the European countries to focus on the techniques and ingredients because it’s in their DNA and part of their entire education,” he explains. “We have a different approach to the cooking.”
Then there’s also the issue of resources and—when it comes down to it—cold hard cash. Traditionally, European countries take the Bocuse d’Or very seriously. Favourites tipped to win or at least nab a place in the top three positions, like France and some of the Scandinavian countries, devote huge resources to training their Bocuse d’Or candidates. Budgets can soar to a generous US$1 million and above. And while money is a poor substitute for talent, it goes a long way towards training it—by allowing coach, candidate and commis to prepare for the competition full time for a year. “We can’t afford that [in Singapore],” says Menard simply.
But under Menard’s watch, changes are afoot. The Bocuse d’Or Academy Singapore was set up earlier this year to bring together industry veterans as mentors for the island’s Bocuse d’Or candidate and to support his bid. To date, there are 22 members including heavyweights such as chef Julien Royer of two-Michelin-star Odette, Justin Quek of Sky on 57, president of the Singapore Chefs’ Association Edmund Toh and Frederic Colin of Brasserie Gavroche and the Gavroche Group. The Academy also aims to tap on the expertise and experience of past Bocuse d’Or candidates such as chef Jason Tan of Corner House, who took part in the Bocuse d’Or finals in 2009; and chef Wai, Singapore’s sole medallist. This year, chef Michael Muller, executive sous chef at Facebook Singapore and formerly executive chef of Raffles Hotel Jakarta, took on the responsibilities of coach.
“We have lots of talent in Singapore, and we have all the ingredients to do something amazing,” Menard declares. “The academy gives it an official structure and lets us build on Singapore’s Bocuse d’Or history.” One of Menard’s first tasks was buffering up the budget, and to that end, he managed to triple it—though it’s still just one-tenth of that of the big boys. “Besides the passion and training, it’s also a fact that competitions require money to run.”
For chef Yew Eng Tong, it has made a world of difference. Currently the chef de cuisine at Ocean Restaurant by Cat Cora at Resorts World Sentosa, the 38-year-old is no stranger to competition—he has represented Singapore in numerous international outings and was team captain of the Singapore national team that won the Expogast Culinary World Cup in Luxemburg in 2014. Lyon 2017 will also be his third, and final, Bocuse d’Or outing. (Competition ruling prohibits candidates from participating more than three times.) This time though, he will be going in with a different perspective from previous years.
“In the past, it was only me, the coach, the commis chef and chef Christophe Megel [former president of Bocuse d’Or Singapore],” he explains. “Chef Christophe really guided me and gave me the space to create. It was an incredible learning experience. But this time round, I have the strength of 22 [from the academy] and it’s a totally different experience,” Yew says. “I am geared for competition.”
It has been a long journey for Yew, who was placed 17th in his previous two outings. The last, in 2015, was particularly disappointing as he expected to do better. Chef Menard, too, thought that he was underrated that year. But this year, he hopes to break into the top 10. Indeed, the pressure is on for him to perform, stoked perhaps by the recent win of the Singapore team at the Culinary Olympics in Germany.
“What a lot of people don’t understand is that it is a totally different level of competition,” Yew shares. “The detail of the food is very different and the pressure is much much more intense. Except for your commis, you are on your own.”
But by all counts, he has the mental fortitude to face up to the pressure and challenge. For the Asia Pacific regional selection held in April this year, Yew ranked second, beating candidates from China, Australia and South Korea, and coming in just behind Japan’s Kotaro Hasegawa. “Eng Tong is one of the most talented chefs in Singapore and he has been competing almost his whole career,” says chef Muller. “I strongly believe he has very high chances to achieve a fantastic result for this third participation.”
His advice to Yew is simple, poignant and heartfelt. “Cook with love, cook for yourself and taste everything before serving,” he says. “This is your third and last time, so give your best and enjoy.” We second that.
Cover: Bocuse d’Or
This was first published in Wine & Dine’s December 2016 issue – ‘All I Want for Xmas is Gold’