Michael Clauss Has Followed His Own Star… Right to Hyde Park
[The Bocuse d’Or USA selects its 2013 team at the end of January; here’s a look back at some highlights of our coverage of the 2010 team trials.]
[With this article, Toqueland has completed its goal of profiling all 12 finalists who will be competing in the Bocuse d’Or USA at Hyde Park this weekend. Best of luck to all the candidates!]
One of the more intriguing aspects of the Bocuse d’Or is the tension between what a chef candidate wants to cook and what he or she has to cook. Most seasoned observers of the competition will tell you that if you don’t cook from the heart, the final dishes will be diminished; the insincerity will register in the eyes and on the taste buds of the judges. This creates a unique tension for non-European candidates because food etched in a classic French/European style tends to win at the Bocuse d’Or.
After interviewing Michael Clauss, chef of The Daily Planet in Burlington, Vermont, recently, I was struck by how naturally he seemed to fit into this matrix–the chef has a deep background in French cuisine, and has followed his instintcts (and as you are about to learn, his heart) to his current places or residency and employment. I’ll be interested to see how that all adds up on his platters this Saturday.
Clauss was born in Ridgewood, New Jersey, but his family moved to Vermont when he was three. They lived on a converted dairy farm where they engaged in all kinds of enviable culinary activities, such as cooking freshly killed deer over a woodburning stove or making fresh pasta (his mother was the daughter of Sicilians) every Sunday.
Clauss himself began cooking in high school, then attended the Culinary Institute of America, graduating in 1995. He externed at the Equinox Hotel in Manchester, Vermont, which led to working in Chantecleer, a small restaurant in East Dorset, Vermont, owned by a Swiss chef of French descent, where he got a crash course in classic, often rustic, cooking: chateaubriand, frog’s legs, Dover sole, and so on. There were only about eight entrees on the menu, supplemented by six or seven specials a day, which Clauss says was satisfying from a creative standpoint. He ended up staying there for 9 years.
From there, Clauss moved around a bit: a stint as sous chef and banquet chef at Tribeca Grill; two years as an instructor at the New England Culinary Institute in Northern Vermont; and then an extended stay in post-Katrina New Orleans, cooking for volunteers.
After another teaching stint in Vermont, Clauss returned to New York City in January 2008, as a sous chef at Daniel kicking off what the chef calls “a wild ride…a change of gears for sure, everything had to be perfect all the time, it’s like no other restaurant I worked at or ever will work at.”
After a year, Clauss became executive chef of Boulud’s catering business, Feast and Fete, but his time there would be short lived because he met the love of his life, Alexandra Bolanis, while doing a specialty wine dinner in Vermont and decided to move back to his adopted home state, finding work at Daily Planet, a nearly thirty-year old restaurant and a bit of an institution know for, according to Clauss, “a causal atmosphere and good food.” Clauss told the owners he wanted to take the restaurant to the next level, going “super local.” They bought it, and he now culls ingredients from 28 to 30 different farms on his menu.
Clauss’ interest in the Bocuse d’Or began even before he worked at Daniel—he already knew Brandon Rogers, Gavin Kaysen’s Bocuse d’Or commis in 2007, who had been a student of his at the New England Culinary Institute and was working at the restaurant when he came on board. Additionally, at Daniel, he had a front-row seat to the ramp up to the 2008 Bocuse d’Or USA, when Boulud, Thomas Keller, and Jerome Bocuse took over the American cause. (Much of the planning was done out of an office near Clauss’ kitchen.)
Clauss says he’s always been a competitor and that that was part of his motivation for applying to the Bocuse d’Or USA. He’s dabbled in cooking competitions (mostly mystery basket exercises) and did well. He also raced bicycles up and down the East Coast in his younger days. “I like being under the fire,” he says. “I’ve always done well under the gun…I’m always looking to challenge myself.”
Clauss felt that his background was a good fit with the Bocuse d’Or, not just because of his time at Daniel, but also at Chantecleer, where all sauces were fashioned a la minute… not a bad background for the demands of the contest, which is basically one giant a la minute exercise that happens to last five and a half hours. Clauss says that that background gave him a good comfort zone for the contest. “Once I found out what the [main proteins] were gong to be–salmon and lamb–I had ideas right off the bat.”
He also felt he had a grasp of what the Committee would be looking for: “If I was a judge–if I was Keller or Daniel or Jerome Bocuse–I would be looking at us from a chef’s standpoint. For me, what I’m expecting, is for them to look at who gives us the best chance to win, who is working neatest, cleanest, fastest.”
When I spoke to Clauss, he was planning to do as many run-throughs as possible for two weeks, then break for most of this week. (This is a popular approach among many competition veterans who feel that practicing too close to the actual competition is a bad idea, that you need to create a dynamic where your body craves the next turn in the kitchen.) To that end, his commis, a CIA student named Marcella Ogrodnik, was staying with Clauss and his girlfriend (make that fiancee–Clauss and Bolanis got engaged on January 28!) until earlier this week.
When I spoke to him earlier this month, Clauss said that the whole thing still seemed a bit surreal and was just then starting to feel like a reality as he ordered the equipment he needed. “I think about it a lot and the ideas and how I’m going to do it. As the days grow closer, I’m starting to feel more confident that—you know what—this is actually going to happen.”