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    Half-sour cucumbers, hold the salt

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Knives at Dawn: Bringing Heat to the Kitchen

"Knives at Dawn" by Andrew FriedmanSo much of TV-chefery these days has to do with blood sport that it’s inevitable someone would start covering cooking competitions by following underdog contestants as though they were Olympic figure skating hopefuls. And although it’s been done before, both on Top Chef and in many, many of the star chef bios of the past 5 years, Knives at Dawn by Andrew Friedman gives one of the most detailed personal and critical inside views yet of the strange pursuit of haute cuisine for haute cuisine’s sake. Part sports dramalogue, part Judgment of Paris, Knives at Dawn trails a handful of American chefs attempting to compete for one of the highest honors in European cooking.

The Bocuse d’Or is one of the most prestigious cook-offs in the world and garners contestants from all over Europe and a few of the US’s top restaurants. The costs of training run the price of a small house, and the US team has had no government or corporate sponsorship, unlike many of the European competitors.

Throughout three months of preparation which Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud oversaw in 2008-9, a team (1 chef, Timothy Hollingsworth, and 1 commis or prep chef assistant, Adina Guest) from Keller’s French Laundry are coached to represent the US in Lyon. They have to cover the training and travel bills at their own expense, and continue working their day jobs for more of the time than their European opponents.

As Hollingsworth designs and revises his competition entries, suggested garnishes get more and more elaborate–sometimes without anything that’s likely to make them taste better. Onion tuiles. Things wrapped in Swiss chard leaves or carrot ribbons. Savoy cabbage as a “fun” garnish for beef cheeks (here I confess I pictured cafeteria kale as a “fun” accompaniment to the legendary dish, chair mystère–Mystery Meat). And lots of things made with mandoline-sliced potatoes crisped to perfection between silpats. In fact, the word perfection, followed by perfectionistic and culture of perfectionism, keep repeating throughout the section on Hollingsworth and Guest’s training period. It’s a bit unglamorous, to tell you the truth.

The exactitude of discussion over details like garnish, plating, and the like for one fish dish and one meat dish is the kind of technical overdose patter that puts people to sleep at any time other than the actual routine that will count for scoring. Something like the perennial Dick Button and whichever female commentator could be roped in to join him,  talking rinkside about the difference in a triple-lutz made by putting pressure on the inside versus the outside edges of the blade.

Comes the week of competition and things start to take on the frenetic tone of a typical Top Chef episode, but Friedman has a knack of lifting the description just enough that you don’t feel like jeering the chefs when they do something unthinking and predictably awful, and then have to undo it right before time is called. It helps, of course, that the American contestants have been restaurant chefs trained under Keller’s and Boulud’s and other name-chefs’ wing. It also helps that they haven’t spent their time getting face time on TV but cooking day in, day out. They don’t act like little stars. And Friedman has enormous sympathy for them and the rough ride they’ve agreed to be put through.

The grueling round of practices, details, foibles with dishes that overheat or trivets that melt or cod that falls apart on the presentation platter, whether or not judges from various countries will deduct points for flower garnishes they don’t recognize or think are inedible, and just how many points they’ll take, sometimes took away my appetite for the dishes themselves.

And the potential for skulduggery–discovering that another team’s assistant has pilfered, misplaced, or simply noshed on your team’s hors d’oeuvres entry when your back was turned–is apparently high enough to warrant responses like, “I wanted to stab him in the face. But there wasn’t time before plating.”

As I read and try to imagine how things are likely to taste I start thinking that the last-minute addition of a dollop of caviar on the day isn’t really going to make up for the fact that the food is overworked by any normal eating person’s standards. Only a top-tiered restaurant chef would see two slight variations on meticulously sliced potato kugel sandwiched with chestnut purée and a slice of truffle as necessary or even interesting.

Knives at Dawn also seems to tick off all the right touchstones for recent trends in food magazine think, from bacon-wrapped everything to Swiss chard-wrapped everything, to the now-common slang of “proteins” for meat and fish, to sous-vide everything, especially perfectly spherical poached eggs, and a well-timed mention of the Dornenbergs’ various flavor-matching bibles, one of which was Hollingsworth’s main source of home study when he first started working under Keller.

The Culinary Institute of America is also mentioned prominently and frequently throughout the book, despite the fact that Hollingsworth learned his craft on the job rather than attending any particular cooking school, and that the CIA doesn’t appear to be participating in or underwriting his training for the Bocuse d’Or.

Then there are the other surprises. With no sense of scandal at all, Friedman describes Hollingsworth’s matter-of-fact inclusion of such processed-food industrial ingredients as trans-glutaminase, xanthan gum, and whey derivatives to bolster or stabilize emulsions for the competition or to, in the case of trans-glutaminase, glue two pieces of meat together into an unnatural configuration which apparently wowed the judges at the elimination rounds in Orlando.

Is this what French Laundry serves up? Do all major restaurants? Is it what chefs-to-be learn at the CIA? Friedman takes Hollingsworth’s additions as marks of familiarity with molecular gastronomy, but for me it just underlines the remove from real food to competition food. It’s a pity, because, if Friedman understands his protagonist correctly, Hollingsworth’s heart is in real food with great ingredients and a minimum of manipulation. Of course, that’s “realism” filtered through the distorting lens of a high-level chef whose restaurant charges a typical $250 per person for dinner.

If anything comes out of this book clearly, it’s that the competition is not all about the food. Contrary to Chef Paul Bocuse’s demand that taste be worth two-thirds of the points for the competition in his name, Friedman’s book makes no bones about the food being a manipulable product rather than something exquisite that everyone who sits at the judging table, or everyone who reads this book, will or even should be eager to taste.

But this is a read that grew on me–I was only going to skim it, and I ended up going back and dipping into Friedman’s account more closely, getting to know the contestants, their coaches and competition, and their characters more thoroughly.

The fact that you can’t be there to taste or smell the food itself is always going to make it hard to appreciate the procedural details and unsensual side of a competition. Knives at Dawn, by stressing the individuals–an approach that doesn’t always work this well–gets a little closer than most.

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