In September 2008, Chef Thomas Keller addressed a roomful of culinary notables at Epcot Center before the American qualifier for the world’s premier culinary competition. The Bocuse d’Or, held every two years in Lyon, France, gives 24 chefs from around the world five hours to produce the most beautiful, tasty platters of food from provided main proteins. And the United States entrant has never stood on the awards podium. But in January 2008, Jérôme Bocuse, son of competition founder and president Paul Bocuse, approached Daniel Boulud of New York’s Daniel restaurant with the request to shepherd the American team and secure Keller’s participation. Nine months after that conversation, Timothy Hollingsworth, a French Laundry sous-chef, won the honor of representing his country, and just four months later, he was standing in Kitchen 6 rolling a salmon-mousse-enveloped cod in pistachio dust while Japanese fans screamed for their contestant next door.
In Knives At Dawn: America’s Quest For Culinary Glory At The Legendary Bocuse D’Or Competition, cookbook specialist Andrew Friedman follows Keller, Boulud, Bocuse, Hollingsworth, and the rest of the American contingent from Epcot to Lyon in an unfortunately half-baked attempt at book-length reportage. The story is undeniably compelling: a worldwide sporting event, a bunch of scrappy underdogs, play-by-play announcers, noisemakers in the stands, and allegations of cheating and favoritism. In spite of the efforts to prepare Hollingsworth and his assistant Adina Guest for the unique challenges of the Bocuse d’Or, and in spite of weeks of intensive practice runs using identical equipment, the chef winds up dealing with unanticipated breakdowns during cooking. When Knives At Dawn shines, it’s because readers can see the trainwreck approaching even when the best culinary minds in the country didn’t. For example, after the final practice run, Hollingsworth gets a suggestion to flash-freeze the roe he’s using to add color to his pistachio-crusted cod, then roll it around the completed item for a more even coating. But when he takes the sheet of frozen roe out on competition day, he realizes what the reader knew 30 pages ago: Ice doesn’t bend.
Such moments add drama to Hollingsworth’s run for the gold. But the rest of Friedman’s book doesn’t meet that standard. The 2009 championship took place in February, and the rush to deliver a book by Christmas shows in the pedestrian narrative structure. After flashing back to the formation of Bocuse d’Or USA during the Orlando preliminaries, Friedman has a long and repetitive stretch of practices and meetings to report, and report them he does, in shapeless you-are-there detail. Attendees are duly noted, schedules are slavishly followed, and lengthy e-mails between the New York organizers and the California competitors are reproduced in their entirety. None of this would be out of place in a detailed report on the team, but Friedman is trying to write a page-turning sports story, and he doesn’t have the ideas or skill to carry his readers through the downtime. At one point, Heat author Bill Buford is glimpsed observing the Lyon effort, and it’s hard not to feel a pang of yearning for the book he might have written about this same event.