Going for the Gold: Bay Area Chef Percy Whatley and his “Olympic” Victory

Onlookers chant “TEAM USA! TEAM USA!” waving flags and cheering loudly as the glint of metal flashes across a snowy white backdrop. Figure skating? Nope. Ice Hockey? Not even close.

In this arena, knives gleam in lightning-fast chops over a variety of fresh vegetables and cuts of meats, and white chefs coats dart back and forth between stations as the clock ticks down.

This is the Olympics of food- the prestigious Bocuse d’Or international culinary competition. Established in 1987 by iconic French Chef Paul Bocuse the Bocuse d’Or is the preeminent cooking contest in which teams of one master chef and one commis, or culinary intern, from 24 countries compete every two years for international acclaim in Lyon, France. Think Iron Chef, but with a judging panel of the most esteemed chefs from around the world.

In 23 years of international competition, top honors have been awarded to a multitude of countries, but not   to    the United States, which rates its highest showing at sixth place. With an influx of national attention trained on them, including Top Chef notoriety, American chefs are looking to claim the title once and for all. First stop: the American Bocuse d’Or, created in 2008 to showcase 12 semifinalists in their quest to represent Team USA.

The 2010 bout for the American contender took place on Saturday, February 6, at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York City. For the competition, the chefs had to prepare a seafood menu and meat menu in a five-plus-hour cooking marathon.

San Francisco resident Whatley, executive chef at The Ahwahnee in Yosemite, was the sole Californian to compete this year. Although the top spot went to James Kent of New York City, Chef Whatley did walk away with the award for “Best Meat Plate.”

He sits down to chat with Haute Living about his experiences with “The Golden Bocuse” and his love of the Golden Gate City:

1. This marks your second time competing, as you were a contestant in the first American Bocuse d’Or at Epcot in 2008. Was there a different energy or spirit to the competition this year?

The energy was different, neither better nor worse.   The venue changed so the production effort was a little different.

I actually liked it better at the CIA Hyde Park as there was the ability to spread the word to the next generation of competitors right there and then.  It was definitely creating excitement for future involvement from tomorrow’s chefs.

At Epcot, it was completely a Disney production, with all of the bells and whistles…quite a show indeed!  The problem was that there was a lot going on at the Epcot Food and Wine Festival so there were many other attractions for the guests to see other than Bocuse d’Or USA, leaving attendance a little flat.

2. Bay Area chefs have access to some of the best natural ingredients in the country. Was sustainability a factor in creating your dishes?

Yes, definitely.  The approach for something like this needs to be food items that you believe in.  Since sustainability and seasonality are factors in my everyday cooking, it was much easier and more natural to go with items that were local and in season.  If you aren’t comfortable with the preparations in that competition, it really shows and the judges can tell.  They are really talented palates!

3. Are you already eye-ing the next competition? How soon do you plan to begin preparation for the 2012 Bocuse d’Or challenge?

At this point, I would rather coach and mentor someone into being a viable candidate for the next selection competition.  I have the insight into what cooking in that facility is like and what the judges are looking for.  These tidbits could allow someone to be a force to be reckoned with in future competitions.  Youth is a factor in this competition as the training is really tough and fatigue oriented.  At 40 years old now and 42 when the next time rolls around, it isn’t all that easy to juggle the many balls it takes to prepare for this.  I am still recovering to a certain degree.

4. When not faced with time constraints or other limitations, what meal gives you the most pleasure to cook?

I love just about everything offal along with all slowly cooked items.  The love and attention that goes into preparing a slow cooked meal is just what the doctor ordered for me.  Pork belly, oxtails, liver, sweetbreads, pigs head, trotters, duck necks, tongues and feet to name a few of my favorite offal items.  Also, something as simple as pasta Bolognese cannot go wrong!

5. As Executive Chef at The Ahwahnee, you understand the way a great hotel operates. Where would you recommend staying for a relaxing weekend in San Francisco?

My all-time favorite hotel to stay in SF is the Hotel Vitale.  There is something about the location being so close to the water, the Bay Bridge, the Ferry Building and Embarcadero.  The best thing is to go onto the roof, relax on the furniture up there and take it all in.

The thing is though, SF is full of great, unique places to stay.  From large hotels to small boutiques, there are so many.  I try to stay close to Union Square if I can’t get into the Vitale.