For those of you unfamiliar, Bocuse d’Or is the culinary equivalent to the Olympics. Created by chef Paul Bocuse in 1987, the world championship held every other year in Lyon, France, calls upon chefs to represent their countries by preparing elaborate presentations of one meat and one fish dish more gorgeous than any plate of food you’ve likely ever seen.
“For me, I wanted to get involved, because it is part of my heritage, part of my family and a legacy that I hope endures from a personal perspective and for chefs all around the world,” Paul’s son, Jérôme, explains.
Behind this competition lives Ment’or, a nonprofit organization also created by Paul that fosters learning in young chefs across the country. “[My father] always had an affinity for the U.S., and he wanted to see the U.S. team gain more visibility during the biennial competitions. [He] asked chefs Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud and myself to create what is now the Ment’or Foundation in order to train and fund Team USA for the Bocuse d’Or,” Jérôme says.
Ment’or offers one- to two-month grants for cost of living and salary for young chefs to continue their education through an unpaid internship in a leading kitchen. In addition to fostering growth in these individuals, the foundation helps identify rising talent through the Young Chef Competitions, in hopes that one day they will go on to represent the U.S. team in the Bocuse d’Or.
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“It is essential for young chefs to have the opportunity to experience new kitchen environments,” chef Daniel Boulud tells us. “Working with other chefs and cuisines can give them the chance to elevate their skills and talent by giving them different perspectives that they can then incorporate into their own culinary repertoire.”
Despite chefs like Keller and Boulud having to endure some of their best cooks leaving for a month or two, the payoff is extraordinary. “The opportunity to stage at another restaurant can be transformative, both professionally and personally,” Keller explains. “It is our hope that they return with a greater sense of awareness, which is one of our core values, the ethos of our restaurants.”
Boulud adds, “It transforms them—they gain inspiration, confidence, knowledge and respect from their team. I often see a different level of cooking and a better understanding of the ingredients that they bring into the kitchen. Or sometimes it is more subtle, like a deeper belief in their capabilities and skills. I also observe a difference in how they interact with new interns in my kitchens, taking them under their wing and mentoring them with a goal of really grooming them.”
The ability to mentor others is a key skill passed on from generation to generation. In describing his mentor, Roger Vergé, Boulud recounts, “He was really the first person to go beyond forming my cooking skills; under him, I took my first steps as a manager. He was the mentor who taught me how to mentor other chefs!”
Keller sums it up this way, “It is my belief that the best chefs are the ones who came before us: the innovators and influencers who inspired a generation of chefs and whose experience and expertise paved the way for the most refined and advanced culinary era in history.”