STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
For many chefs, winning the prize we'll talk about next is like winning the Super Bowl. But in the international contest's 26-year history, no American has ever won the Bocuse d'Or - that's D-apostrophe-O-R. The first step in deciding who represents the United States is a nation competition, which was recently held at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Karen Michel was there.
KAREN MICHEL, BYLINE: The competition was held, fittingly, in the Culinary Institute's gym. The bleachers held cheering fans; the P.A. system blared; huge, overhead screens showed close-ups of the action; and the competitors - intense, focused - brought their coaches.
UNIDENTIFIED COACH: Do it right now. Put it back up there. Make sure the warmer's on.
MICHEL: There should have been a warning at the door of the Bocuse d'Or: Don't try this at home - unless, along with the Wondra flour used by one chef, you also have powders of squash and hibiscus, truffles both black and white, and fennel pollen - yes, pollen - in your kitchen pantry.
Each of the four chefs was charged with making two dishes of their own invention: one entree of cod, and one of chicken.
DANIEL BOULOUD: The most difficult thing in cooking is to cook an egg. So if the egg is the most difficult thing, imagine the chicken.
MICHEL: Chef Daniel Bouloud - whose New York City restaurant Daniel has been named one of the 10 best restaurants in the world - was one of the judges. We watched as Jeffrey Lizotte, his hands slightly shaking, prepared his chicken dish.
BOULOUD: He has a chicken ballotine with foie gras and black truffle, carrot royale with pistachios, celery root mille feuille and a sauce perigourdine. He has a lot of work to do.
MICHEL: No mistake: It was work. Each of the four kitchens buzzed with chopping, stirring, arranging - and tension. This is competition cooking, and the chefs train as intensely as any athlete.
DANNY CERQUEDA: Because it's a five-and-a-half hour marathon of food.
MICHEL: Danny Cerqueda has a close-trimmed beard and a big smile. It was his second time competing in the Bocuse d'Or USA. Born in Georgia, now he cooks in Raleigh, North Carolina.
CERQUEDA: Wrapped the chicken in bacon and sausage. And I love bacon, and I love wrapping anything in bacon - because bacon makes everything taste better.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
MICHEL: Eight hundred or so enthusiastic spectators watched the chefs as closely as any football fan waiting for a slick move - some fans of cooking shows on TV, and others like Peter Haynes, hoping to someday be one of the contestants.
PETER HAYNES: I love sports, so competing is natural to me. I think it kind of goes hand in hand with cooking, a little bit.
MICHEL: Haynes hopes to be hired by one of the competitors, fresh-faced Richard Rosendale, an executive chef in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. He seemed positively calm.
RICHARD ROSENDALE: Well, I tried to use some ingredients that are indigenous to the style of cooking in West Virginia. We used some country ham, cornbread, some West Virginia maple syrup.
MICHEL: In 2008, Richard Rosendale came in second in the U.S. final for the Bocuse d'Or competition. This time, he was considered a favorite to win.
At a pre-determined time, as each chef finished his dish, it was brought out to the 12 seated judges - themselves, distinguished chefs - first the cod, then the chicken. The judges picked at the food - assessing the taste and texture, the look, the relative deliciousness of the meal - filling out a detailed score sheet between bites and sips of champagne.
BOULOUD: It's a leek - a whole, stuffed leek. Beautiful.
UNIDENTIFIED JUDGE: Yeah, it's nice.
MICHEL: There was pressure to pick a winner who could not only represent the United States at the competition a year from now in Lyon, but finally win. No U.S. chef has come closer than a sixth-place finish. In the end, the winner was the chef with the most fans in the stands, and the biggest buzz among the epicures.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: OK. Without further ado, I'm really proud to announce the winner - and the next team for the United States of America - Richard Rosendale.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
MICHEL: For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.