By: Greg Johnson, Washington Post Magazine
Deep in a bunker below the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., two strategists in white uniforms huddle in a war room, fine-tuning a battle plan. Their mission would no doubt puzzle the Eisenhower-era officials who built this once-secret hideaway as a fallout shelter for Congress at the height of the Cold War. Declassified after it was exposed in 1992 in The Washington Post by journalist Ted Gup, the bunker has seen a variety of less dramatic uses, but perhaps none more intriguing than the project it currently houses: victory over the top chefs of Europe.
The Greenbrier’s 37-year-old executive chef, Richard Rosendale, and his 21-year-old commis (assistant), Corey Siegel, will compete on Jan. 30 against chefs from 23 other countries in the world’s most challenging and prestigious culinary competition, the Bocuse d’Or, held every two years in Lyon, France.
U.S. teams have twice placed sixth in the competition’s 25-year history, in 2003 and 2009, but no U.S. chef has ever claimed a gold, silver or bronze medal. Rosendale is determined to change this, and he and his commis are throwing themselves into the cause with the intensity of Olympic hopefuls.
By the time they emerge from their bunker and head for Lyon, they will have devoted hundreds of hours to preparation. Trainers have them weight lifting, running, biking, jumping rope and even boxing to get in shape for the grueling 5-hour, 35-minute event. The Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation, which is underwriting the campaign, estimates it will cost a half-million dollars.
Europeans — the French and Norwegians in particular — have dominated the Bocuse d’Or since its inception in 1987. In recent years, a dream team of U.S. culinary luminaries headed by Thomas Keller (the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif.), Daniel Boulud (Daniel in New York City) and Jerome Bocuse (Les Chefs de France at Florida’s Epcot theme park) has taken up the challenge of putting America on the podium, lending their know-how, reputations and impressive fundraising muscle. A benefit at Boulud’s flagship New York restaurant in March raised $700,000, and a fantasy gift in the 2012 Neiman Marcus Christmas catalogue, offering dinner for 10 prepared by Keller, Boulud, Bocuse (son of the competition’s founder, French chef Paul Bocuse) and Rosendale, has the potential to swell the war chest by $250,000 more.
The torch was passed to Rosendale, a veteran of 48 national and international competitions, in January, when he won the Bocuse d’Or USA at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
“I knew my life had changed when I was driving home and I kept getting calls from the media,” the Greenbrier chef recounts. “When I got back, I had 700 e-mails waiting.”
Embracing his new role, with support from the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation and Greenbrier owner Jim Justice, and equipment donated by sponsors, Rosendale installed a $150,000 duplicate of the kitchen he will use in France in the fallout shelter’s cafeteria. With a nod to history, he dubbed his practice facility the War Room.
But will all this expenditure of time, effort and money help capture an honor that has eluded a dozen other U.S. teams? An awful lot can go wrong in 51 / 2 hours of intense culinary creation, and it often does.
The Bocuse d’Or isn’t your mother’s pie-baking contest. Held in a sprawling exhibition hall filled with clamoring, unrestrained partisans, the scene resembles a World Cup final. Swiss fans have arrived armed with cowbells and engaged in a war of decibels with costumed, trumpet-blasting mariachis from Mexico. The unchecked enthusiasm can reach such deafening proportions that some teams have resorted to wearing earplugs and communicating by hand signals and scribbled notes.