7 p.m. – The American Bounty restaurant at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America), a cocktail reception followed by a sit down dinner. A quote from Thomas Keller, “You are to be commended for your confidence and for competing.”

When I arrive I see Sonny is talking to a couple of other commis contestants and seems comfortable and handsome in his brand new suit looking quite dapper. I meet with the other contestants.  Two are sous chefs, one for Gavin Kaysen, head chef for Daniel Boulud’s Cafe Boulud, and one of the captains for the team as well as a former contestant as the US representative at the Bocuse D’Or in 2007.  I found that at age 19 he trained with Lance Armstrong on the cycling team (Lance won the Tour de France I think 7 times) until he had a bad accident, which then led him to cooking. The other sous chef is from Providence restaurant in Los Angeles, CA. You should have seen his menu, spiral bound, slick and sleek, and about 3/4-inch thick. I turned to Sonny and said, “Good thing you didn’t bring your xerox copies stapled together, huh?” We laughed, and he said, “Thank you, Kurt (our branding consultant).”

The other contestant is a girl who is from France and works at Gramercy Tavern in New York City, which is owned by Danny Meyer and is next to Eleven Madison (the restaurant where the past winner came from).  She was mentored by Daniel Humm who has a good background and training.

Then there is our Sonny.

I bumped into Richard Rosendale, the executive chef of the Greenbrier.  He is a highly decorated chef who is a graduate of the Greenbrier program and was on the US Olympic team at least a couple of times and has been to Frankfurt, Germany, competing in the culinary Olympics. He is competing on Sunday for the big title.  I asked him a question, “so how many times have you practiced your menu?” He said that he has been preparing for over a year, even traveled to Norway on his own dime to work with two former Bocuse champions.  He actually practiced his five-hour routine seven times, and practiced parts of it many, many times. I expect that Richard is very detail-oriented and that he would do time trials every day if he could.  They didn’t find out their proteins until November, about the same time Sonny found out about his chicken dish.  So that means his seven practices were time trials that were done since November.  He said even though he didn’t know what his protein was going to be, since he had practiced and put in countless hours on a dish that didn’t utilize chicken, he would still be able to apply everything he’d worked on to with chosen protein.  There is a moral to Richard’s story – practicing is always a process that will never go to waste.

I could catch Sonny’s expression out of the corner of my eye as he watched Richard talk.  He was in awe.  I think it made him more nervous.  Richard offered Sonny the opportunity to come to the Greenbrier for a stage anytime.  Richard is also planning to have a Greenbrier Apprentices reunion sometime soon, which means I get to go back as a graduate of the program.

Sonny and I also talked to James Kent, who won the last competition.  His advice to Sonny was to set up in the back, not the front, so no one can see you too closely.  This allows you to focus on your tasks better.  He told Sonny to pretend that no one else is there.  If Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, or Grant Achatz comes up to you, talks to you, or watches you, don’t get flustered.  Play your own game.  This is where the amount of practices you have under your belt determines your ability to play your own game.  I know Sonny was thinking, “Wow, Richard practiced seven times” and he only practiced four times.  Sonny’s time trial was two hours and thirty five minutes for one dish plated for eight.  Richard’s was five hours hours for two platters with eight plates each.  But James told Sonny to be confident of himself and what he was doing no matter what.  Stick to your guns, he said.

I also ran into Mark Erickson and sat with him for dinner.  Mark’s daughter is a senior at Cornell now, and he still lives in Atlanta, GA.  He commutes and now oversees the CIA campuses in Greystone, Singapore, Austin, and Hyde Park.  Wow.  We reminisced on our Greenbrier days 29 years ago.  Another wow.  We sat next to Victor Gielese, another CIA vice president whom I have known for a long time. They are both Master Chefs.  Also on our table was Barbara Lynch, our sous chef Shaun Gaines’ chef from Boston.  Completing the table were Colin, executive chef for Barbara Lynch, and Brad Barnes, another CMS (certified master chef) and senior director of culinary education for the CIA.

Mark Erickson told Sonny, “you will be judged tomorrow on how well your chef has prepared you.”  I told Sonny, “Wow, no pressure, brah.”  I mentioned to Mark that Sonny’s dream was to come to the CIA one day, and that Sonny’s mom wanted him to go into the medical field.  Sonny didn’t follow his mom’s wishes because he wanted to cook.  Being here is a big deal for Sonny because it validates his desire to be in the kitchen, not only to himself, but to his mom and his family.  I told Mark that Sonny was featured in an article in the newspaper because of his participation in this competition, and Sonny’s mom woke him up at five thirty in the morning and screamed because her son’s picture was in the paper.  Mark said that they should all be reminded of stories like this.  Being at the CIA, they don’t hear these kinds of stories about young people whose dreams are being realized at the place where they come every day.  I bet there is something in that for all of us.

Sonny went home early at 9 p.m. exactly, while the dinner ended at 10 p.m.  He wanted to go home early to get some rest.  We talked about how an athlete watches himself the night before the game.  The party is all around him, but he has to be disciplined and focus on tomorrow.  I told him to enjoy himself but to remember why he is here.  I also said to not feel obligated to hang around me.  He can, but he should make friends, eat with the other contestants if he has the opportunity.  I said to him that this is another learning experience besides the cooking and the competition.  He has to learn how to be among his peers and be sociable.  I reminded him of how a football player makes a touchdown, and how you can tell whether it was the first one by the player dancing all over the place, or whether the player has been there before because he acts like he’s been there before.  Sonny was in awe.  I knew.  I could feel his nervousness.  I reminded him that even though someone has all the talent one can have, you can’t tell whether the others will crack.  “Bend but don’t break.  Be like bamboo.”  Stress is self-created, and competition either brings out the best in us, or it can break us.

I will be able to be right in front of his kitchen tomorrow.  I can talk to him, but I can’t touch anything.  The contestants were able to measure out their mise en place today, so that will help Sonny a lot.  He met his commis and saw the kitchen that he would be working out of.  He also got a demonstration on how all of the equipment works, and he toured the CIA a little.  His dream of going to the CIA is happening right now.

Sonny went home early, but I doubt he’s sleeping right now.  He got a lot of ideas and inspiration from being here tonight.

OK, I had coffee with dessert, so I cannot sleep. Or, maybe I am just as nervous as Sonny.

– AW

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