Founding a Legacy: Ment’or BKB
Yountville, California

Founding a Legacy: Ment’or BKB

Many of us share a feeling as we mature and grow about the legacy we will leave behind; a question of how we will be remembered, what effect that we’ll leave upon the world. Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, and Jerome Bocuse were looking to answer these questions when they created the foundation Ment’or BKB. They realized they shared a commonality of being mentored as young cooks entering the kitchen; they’d each had advisors that helped guide them as they progressed through the world of cooking. It was time for them to transform from being simply chefs into beacons for future generations that could follow in their footsteps.

It was with this intention that they joined forces in 2008 to establish a foundation that would support the chefs chosen from America to compete in the Bocuse d’Or. Creating the first iteration of the foundation that would one day become known as Ment’or BKB, they entered the realm of competition cooking relatively unprepared. However, armed with passion and decades of  experience standing up to the pressure associated with running highly successful restaurants, they set forth to increase awareness within the United States of the event that many refer to as the “World Cup of Chefs.”

The French Laundry Garden
Yountville, California

The Bocuse d’Or World Competition was founded in 1987 by legendary chef Paul Bocuse, as a cooking competition for chefs that was run by chefs. Bocuse, who has been honored with three Michelin stars, was one of the first French chefs to step away from opulent, rich foods and focus on perfection of ingredients. He wanted to bring the excitement of a traditional sporting event to the world of cooking.

Imagine standing in a stadium full of screaming fans, many of whom have traveled from around the world. 24 finalists compete in a two-day culmination of more than two years of preparation. Iconic men and women, pillars in their field, judge participants on their ability to “demonstrate creativity, spontaneity and the mastery of their art.” With hundreds of media outlets recording and broadcasting the event, isn’t it bizarre that that only two among them are American? Chef Philip Tessier, former Executive Sous Chef from The French Laundry, and his assistant Commis Skylar Stover, also of The French Laundry, made history when they took the silver medal this past January, representing America on the podium for the first time since the Bocuse d’Or competition was founded.

Keller, Boulud, and Bocuse’s foundation gained its footing following several years of trial and error as the teams began learning what the competition entailed. As Chef Philip stated, “A lot of people––when they saw Keller, Boulud, and Bocuse take over––they expected immediate results. What no one realized is that it’s a learning process. They were learning for the first two to three cycles. Tim Hollingsworth was a last minute candidate that only had eight months to prepare for the entire process from beginning to end. When he came in, they needed to look back over a lot of the decisions that had been made. It became clear that there was still a lack of understanding about the competition and the process. They didn’t know what the judges were looking for. These chefs––the chefs who are winning––when asked why they are doing this competition, they always say that they saw it on TV when they were kids. They knew they wanted to be that person on TV.”

Having multiple generations of youth from around the world with dreams of becoming the glamorous chefs they saw on TV, other teams have always had a pool of talent from which to draw. It has been a struggle to find a team to compete from within the US, not due solely to the lack of knowledge about what Bocuse d’Or is, but a lack of support. There is also a challenge in convincing those with the necessary experience required to compete––executive chefs, owners, and other nearly irreplaceable talents within the kitchen––to step away from their lives for the year required to dedicate to intensive training for something that they probably know next to nothing about.

As Chef Philip and Commis Skylar can tell you, the year they spent together was a grueling one. With Chef Philip in his mid-thirties and Commis Skylar in his early twenties, there was also a generational gap to bridge as they spent countless hours designing, creating, and cooking.

Commis Skylar Stover & Chef Philip Tessier

“Skylar grew up a lot this year. It was a challenging dynamic. We had to pull out of our kitchen completely and learn to work together. It was exciting and challenging. It takes a lot of mental stamina and tenacity to really push through the failures and the challenges. We had weeks go by where we weren’t making the progress we wanted, where we just felt the pressure of that. There is a calendar you have to hit, and if you start slipping off of that calendar you will fall behind. We did really well handling that pressure. We knew if we kept working at it, the results would come.”

At times they fell behind schedule as they hit intellectual roadblocks, and at others they relied on the support of those who had competed in previous years. Drawing on the strength of not just the Ment’or team, but also former competitors Chefs Gavin Kaysen (an alumni of the Daniel Boulud Restaurant Group who recently opened his restaurant Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis) and Tim Hollingsworth (former Chef de Cuisine at The French Laundry who will be opening Otium in 2015 in collaboration with restaurateur Bill Chait in Los Angeles), they were better prepared than any team before them. They were also assisted by The French Laundry gardeners, Aaron Keefer and Kate Olen, who planted all of the produce with which the team practiced, and eventually shipped to the city of Lyon, where the competition is held. “We were able to design a lot of the food based on what we were growing here. She (Kate) was shipping us food everyday before the competition––little boxes that said things like ‘Go team USA!’ They were incredibly amazing, planting produce just for us.”

Each two year cycle that has passed since 2008 laid additional infrastructure toward what would eventually become a historic win. With each failure, frustration, and shortcoming, the American team was learning. It became apparent that it wouldn’t be possible to win without complete dedication and, as BKB would realize, the competition doesn’t begin with the current candidate, but rather with the younger generation. With this in mind, they reformatted their foundation, and in 2014 revealed Ment’or. This new iteration would not focus solely on supporting Team USA as they had supported Chef Philip and his Commis Skylar, but instead begin reaching out to younger cooks still cutting their teeth in kitchens across the country.

Team USA proved this year that with the right support and mentorship, anything is possible.  This is one of the messages that Chef Philip looks to spread as he takes on an advisory role with Ment’or. He reflects on how his silver medal was possible only because of those who came before him. “The template for winning includes a lot of groundwork and practice. The time it takes to do it is great and challenging all at once. Now that we have done what we have done and the organization has seen the success, we know how it works and we can build off of that foundation. We need to maintain and build a legacy.”

This statement of legacy is reflective of the world of cooking; knowledge in the kitchen has been passed from mentors to apprentices for generations. A legacy of respect has traveled from masters to those whom they could entrust their heritage. The practice of staging––an unpaid apprenticeship––is just that: a young cook hungry to learn more, and willing to work in a great kitchen for free, to travel around the world eager to learn each chef’s secrets and techniques. This practice––one that has long been tradition in the realm of cooking––has fallen out of grace in the US due to ever-tightening labor laws. This is one issue that Ment’or is preparing to help remedy.

In addition to supporting the teams that will be competing in the biennial Bocuse, Ment’or has begun awarding scholarships specifically intended for staging. With so much talent blossoming in America, BKB felt it was a shame that young chefs were being forced to travel abroad to complete stages where labor laws aren’t as strict.

While once it was assumed that European kitchens were superior to American ones, chefs in America have proven in the last twenty years that they are ready to stand toe-to-toe with European masters. The foundation has a Culinary Council consisting of many of today’s most influential chefs, from Michael Tusk of Quince in San Francisco to Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago. These chefs have agreed to host Ment’or stages in their kitchens while the foundation assists with the cost. With scholarship money granted, that staging cook won’t have to worry where they might find their next meal, or how they will pay rent while apprenticing. These young cooks will reinvigorate the practice of learning away from home without the concern of breaking the law in search of knowledge.

There are no limits to the heights that can be reached when people work together towards a common goal. Chefs like Boulud, Keller and Bocuse are examples of how important it is to lend a helping hand to those whom look up to you, no matter how far you have risen. In a profession in which knowledge is shared and community is essential, these men are proving that a person’s most important strength lies within teaching what you know to others. This is the legacy of Ment’or BKB.

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