June in Sydney means the Film Festival and the chance to see hundreds of movies, although I only manage to find time for a few. Choosing what to see is always a bit hit and miss but it is impossible to resist any film about food. Last year it was one with the intriguing title of The chicken, the fish and the king crab (which sounds even more interesting in Spanish El pollo, el pez y el cangrejo real).
The film follows the fortunes of Spanish chef Jesus Alberto Almagro Morales, then a chef at Restaurante Pedro Larumbe in Madrid, as he trains for and then competes in a bizarre competition know as the Golden Bocuse (which of course sounds much better in French - Bocuse d’Or ).
Almagro represents his country at the 11th Bocuse which was held in January 2007 in Lyon (the competition began in 1987 and is held every second year). The brain child of Paul Bocuse the event aims to be a sort of culinary Olympiad with 24 chefs from 24 different countries performing in front of a live audience. In the 2007 version the chefs had to produce two full courses – a fish course based on Norwegian halibut and king crab and a meat course based on Bresse chicken each with three garnishes. The food must introduce ‘the culinary specificity of the country represented both in terms of taste and presentation’ (whatever that means) but be prepared using traditional French techniques. Twelve portions of each dish are paraded before the judges on a one metre long glass platter and each contestant is awarded points for taste (40), presentation (20), how well the ‘culinary specificity’ is represented (total of 15 – 10 for taste and 5 for presentation) and for overall hygiene and cleanliness (20).
The contest runs over 2 days with 12 chefs performing at each event. Each chef works in an 18m² cubicle and has 5 hours to present the fish dish and 35 minutes later must present the meat dish. The order in which each team starts work is determined by ballot and the first begins at 8.50 am followed by the others at 10 minute intervals. At the end of the 5 hours the judges are presented with a new platter of food every 10 minutes so how they manage to tell what's what is anybody's guess.
The film starts with Jesus Almagro and his assistant Felix Guerrero working away on some of their initial ideas only to have then torn to pieces by a panel of their peers all of whom have some criticism to make (a bit like MasterChef for professionals). Almagro is a very sympathetic character – determined and focused, but calm and self-effacing. There is no bad language a la Ramsay despite the obvious tension both in the kitchen and in front of the assessment panel. Almagro’s expressive baby-face says it all as numerous ideas are trialled and discarded until the team finally pack their bags for France.
The scenes of the competition itself are hilarious – senior chefs from around the world taking themselves so very seriously; Paul Bocuse, looking more than a little dazed by the whole experience, posing for photographs; the crowd waving flags, dressed in team colours and cheering wildly; the judges entering the arena like movie stars; a bewildered looking Heston Blumenthal towering over almost everyone else. There is an Australian contestant somewhere (Luke Croston who was Australia’s representative again this year - link) but the film only has eyes for Spain in the fervent hope that Jesus will be able to save face – both for himself and his country which has performed dismally in the past. This time round Spain finishes ninth, which is a much better result than they have ever managed before, and our mild mannered chef and his assistant look justifiably quite pleased with themselves.
The winner Fabrice Desvignes (who is French) gets to take home a large golden statue of Paul Bocuse - which given his demeanour in this film is surprisingly life-like – and €20,000 which would perhaps justify all the effort. The young woman who was named best assistant (assistants have to be aged less than 22 whereas the chef must be at least 23) seemed none too thrilled to be taking home what appeared to be an almost life-size ceramic goose!
Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with Jesus and his team I couldn’t help coming away with the nagging question – why? What is this competition all about? Paul Bocuse and his bevy of judges appear, at least in this film, to be slightly ridiculous and what we see of the food looks contrived and fantastic but not necessarily appetising.
At the end of the film Almargro gives a run down of the tons of fish, crab and chicken that he alone used in his preparation, multiply that by twenty four then add in the cost of the time involved and the amount spent on sending teams to Lyon and the whole exercise begins to look like a spectacularly wasteful indulgence.
link The results of this year’s competition