Twelve Years After His First Bocuse d’Or USA, Christopher Parsons is Back
[Between now and the Bocuse d’Or USA finals this Saturday, February 6, Toqueland will profile as many of the finalists as possible.]
For a sense of how much the Bocuse d’Or USA has changed over the years, look no further than the case of Christopher Parsons, executive chef of Catch restaurant in Winchester, Massachusetts, who will be competing this weekend at the Bocuse d’Or USA finals at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York.
Parsons competed in the Bocuse d’Or USA once before, at the regional semifinals at the CIA in St. Helena, California, in 1998, when Parsons was in his late 20s. Back then, the Bocuse d’Or USA was much less well-funded than it is today, and candidates had to finance their own travel to the contest. Parsons, then working at Arizona 206 in midtown Manhattan, was short on funds, so his dad pitched in, buying the young cook a plane ticket with his frequent flyer miles. His father also made a much larger contribution to the effort: although commis (assistants) must be no older than 22 in the international competition in Lyon, there was no age limitation for the USA event at the time. So Parsons bought Dad a chef’s coat and deputized him.
“He’s a [surgeon],” remembers Parsons. “So I had him do all the butchering.”
This time around, the choice of commis was anything but a last-second decision. Parsons had always wanted to go back to the Bocuse d’Or USA, but his schedule didn’t align well with the biennial team trials. Now that he has his own restaurant—with all the support that provides—and is still, by his self-evaluation, young enough (39) to cook fast, he thought perhaps the time was right. The only impediment was identifying a wingman.
“My dad was great,” Parsons says. “But it’s two people in the kitchen. You need [a professional] commis.”
Enter Nathaniel “Nate” French, a culinary student who works garde manger at Catch during his breaks. Parsons has always been impressed with French’s drive and saw many reasons why he would be an ideal assistant for the Bocuse d’Or.
For starters, the duo have a symbiotic relationship in the kitchen, essential to competing well: “My kitchen and my restaurant are small,” says Parsons. “The way my restaurant is set up, I work next to garde manger…we’ve worked in very small quarters together efficiently for a while. My kitchen is not much bigger than those Bocuse cubes.”
(Parsons might be onto something here. In Knives at Dawn, my book on the 2009 American team that competed in Lyon, candidate Timothy Hollingsworth laments that he wasn’t able to station his commis, Adina Guest, at the garde manger station for a period of time prior to the competition in order to improve their culinary bond.)
Parsons approached French and asked him if he’d be interested. The chef didn’t put any pressure on the kid, but the truth was that if French had said no, he likely wouldn’t have applied. “I didn’t put it on him, ‘Do it or I’m not doing it,’” says Parsons. “But that’s where I was…If Nate’s interested and he’s fired up to do it, then I think it’s the time.” (French said yes, and Parsons submitted his application to the Committee.)
Parsons studied cooking at Johnson & Wales schools in Providence, Rhode Island and Charleston, South Carolina, and counts among his formative cooking gigs stints at Flagstaff House in Boulder, Colorado; Rialto in Cambridge, Massachusetts; The Oak Bar on Martha’s Vineyard; and the late Cena in New York City. His first chef de cuisine position was at Pravda in Boston, an important step on the path to opening his own place, Catch, in 2003.
Parsons is excited to be in the mix for the Bocuse d’Or USA. He describes his first grab for the gold, back in 1998, as a “life experience,” though also admits that he wasn’t fully prepared, didn’t grasp the full stature of the competition or what was required to step up at the Big Event in Lyon. Today, candidates can go online and see a gallery of platters that have done well in Lyon. But that convenient option wasn’t available back then. Summarizes Parsons: “My dishes in retrospect were too simple.” Nevertheless, he found competing to be a growing experience and wanted to go back ever since.
Parsons put together his ideas for Hyde Park shortly after making the roster of finalists in December, and is the first to admit that he struggled a bit. Mindful of the famously stunning look of Bocuse d’Or platters, he tired to conceive from a visual standpoint, and failed. “The process was becoming unnatural,” he says. He rebooted and started with tried and true concepts from his restaurant repertoire, building them out and adding the necessary garnishes and visual flourishes. For example, he adapted his Roasted Salmon with Red Verjus, Pear Mostarda, and Baby Turnips as the centerpiece of his fish platter, and turned to a lamb dish he used to serve at Catch for his meat platter.
French took a two-week leave (for credit) from school to practice with Parsons, starting on January 23rd. The two had already done technical practices to nail down the baseline cooking, and were planning to focus on timing over their final run-throughs, planning three full five-and-a-half hour practices.
Parsons wishes there were more time to work on speed, but is hopeful that his chemistry with French will fill in that gap. Regardless of how things turn out in Hyde Park, after twelve years, he’s looking forward to making another run at the American title and the ultimate goal of representing the stars and stripes in France in 2011.
“I think it’s just a cool and unique entity,” Parsons says. “I’m just excited to be part of it again.”