Forget the Super Bowl. For the chefs convening this weekend about 100 miles north of New York City, the big game comes this Sunday. And it requires a lot of cod.
The competition, held at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., will crown the U.S. entrant in next year's Bocuse d'Or, a global event that is the equivalent of a kitchen Olympics. The four chefs in Sunday's event are vying to spend the next year engaged in grueling training for a tournament in which Americans have never surpassed sixth place.
"I think we're still in this very interesting process where we're moving from the Jamaican bobsled team to a contender," said Gavin Kaysen, 32 years old, the executive chef at Café Boulud in Manhattan and the head coach who will train Sunday's winner.
The Bocuse d'Or, a biennial event to be held next year in Lyon, France, draws the best emerging culinary talents from 24 countries. "I don't think there is another cooking competition, as far as internationally speaking, as big as this," said Mr. Kaysen. "This is the most prestigious and difficult to be part of."
Mr. Kaysen will lead the American competitor through thousands of hours of intensive preparation that will make cooking-competition show "Top Chef" look like a cakewalk by comparison.
Contestants get 5½ hours to prepare two proteins and six garnishes, or side dishes, all before a live audience. The chefs know ahead of time what the proteins are—cod and chicken, in Sunday's competition—and they can pick their own side dishes. They are judged on both presentation and taste.
"It's all about technique," said Mr. Kaysen, "finding a person who's the right technician."
The ideal chef for the Bocuse d'Or should be able to draw on both modern and classic methods. "Everybody does sous vide, uses transglutaminase, meat glue, liquid nitrogen," said Mr. Kaysen. "Even though we're still applying these modern techniques, we need the technician who can roast meat and tournée [a precise vegetable cut]—the simple craft of cooking."
Mr. Kaysen knows all of this well. He was the U.S. representative in 2007, self-funding his application and training as a little-known chef in San Diego. He finished in 14th place.
Since Mr. Kaysen's day, the U.S. has tried to step up its game. In 2009, a group of elite chefs formed a foundation to help American contenders with financing and training. Its board of directors includes world-renowned chefs and restaurateurs Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller, as well as Jerome Bocuse, a son of the French chef who began the Bocuse d'Or in 1987.
"I think the mission statement of the foundation, of course, is to build something to last," said Mr. Boulud, who is originally from France. "It's also for our cuisine in America and American chefs to be appreciated and recognized on a more global stage."
Still, the Bocuse d'Or has far less resonance here than in Europe, where thousands of spectators flock to Lyon with cowbells, horns and marching bands. The top nations even battle to recruit coaches from rival countries to train their chefs.
In last year's event, U.S. competitor James Kent, a 32-year-old chef de cuisine at Manhattan's Eleven Madison Park, came in 10th after training with a team of coaches that included Mr. Kaysen.
Most challenging, Mr. Kent said, was preparing the same two dishes over and over again. He knew beforehand that the proteins he would have to prepare were monkfish and Scottish lamb.
"Literally, it was a year of eating lamb and monkfish every day for 365 days," said Mr. Kent, whose grueling training went from three days a week to four to eventually full-time as the competition neared.
On Sunday, the chefs trying to represent the U.S. at the next Bocuse d'Or are: Bill Bradley, a chef instructor at Le Cordon Bleu in Cambridge, Mass.; Danny Cerqueda, executive sous chef at the Carolina Country Club in Raleigh, N.C.; Jeffrey Lizotte, chef de cuisine at ON2O in Hartford, Conn.; and Richard Rosendale, executive chef of the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.
The four competitors will be judged by expert chefs as they prepare their dishes in kitchens that are exact replicas of the ones in Lyon.
Among the judges are Chicago's Grant Achatz and New York's Gabriel Kreuther, the executive chef at Danny Meyer's Modern. The two chefs, along with Mr. Kaysen, will then train the winner for the next year.
"The training process…it's kind of crazy," said Mr. Kreuther. "It's unforgiving. It's really tough. You're putting everything into the game and you're surrounded by people that coach you, that judge you, that push you to extreme boundaries."
"You can compare it to a high-performing top athlete," he added.
Indeed, Mr. Kaysen said last year he oversaw about 2,300 hours of training for Mr. Kent. But that kind of commitment still puts the Americans far behind the global powerhouses.
Mr. Kaysen said last year's victor, Danish chef Rasmus Kofoed, trained for 8,000 hours before the competition.