YOUNTVILLE, CALIF. — On a drizzly day in the heart of Napa Valley, Timothy Hollingsworth stands slightly bowed over his cutting board, crumbling a scallop sausage between his fingers. After months of preparation for the most prestigious cooking competition in the world, and with only a few weeks to go, one of his dishes is falling apart.
What should have been a silken-smooth, perfectly shaped mixture of shellfish and cream has cracked during cooking and is coarse and grainy. As he ponders the problem, his assistant Adina Guest pulls a pastry from the oven. "It's burned, chef," she says. As if on cue, smoke fills the kitchen and the fire alarm in the hallway blares. Could things get any worse?
In the middle of this culinary maelstrom, however, Hollingsworth is resolutely calm.
On Wednesday, the unassuming self-taught chef, who through sheer persistence landed a job at the French Laundry, will face screaming crowds, flashing cameras and the opportunity to go where no American has been before: the winner's podium at the international cooking competition known as the Bocuse d'Or, which takes place every two years in Lyon, France.
Before there was "Top Chef" and "Iron Chef," there was the Bocuse d'Or. Founded 22 years ago by the legendary Paul Bocuse, regarded by many as the father of modern French cooking, it's the Olympics of the food world.
This year, after a history of so-so showings, the U.S. is going all-out to elevate its game, with its hopes pinned on the 28-year-old Hollingsworth.
Two of the best chefs in the country -- Daniel Boulud and Hollingsworth's boss, Thomas Keller -- have put their culinary muscle behind the U.S. team, setting up a training kitchen, providing a paid sabbatical and a coach, and in total raising more than half a million dollars in sponsorships to send Hollingsworth and Guest to Lyon, armed with plenty of truffles and Hobbs' bacon. "It's a little bit like Michael Phelps going to Beijing," Boulud says.
For the last three months, Hollingsworth has been working in the training facility set up next to the French Laundry in the former home of Keller's late father. The kitchen is laid out much like the 12 stadium kitchens in Lyon, fully equipped open cubicles that face the stands. On a windowsill in the kitchen is Hollingsworth's trophy -- a statuette of Mickey Mouse -- from the semifinals held in Orlando, Fla., in September, when he beat seven other contestants to represent America in France.
In Lyon, he will have five hours and 35 minutes to prepare eight elaborate dishes on two platters -- using beef tenderloin, cote de boeuf, beef cheeks and oxtail for one platter, and Norwegian cod, scallops and wild prawns for the other -- for a panel of judges from 24 countries.
"It seems like a long time," says Roland Henin, Hollingsworth's coach who has been helping to strategize, "but it's the shortest time of your life."
To add even more pressure, on the day of Hollingsworth's recent practice run the 82-year-old Bocuse shows up. Bundled in a black scarf and tweed jacket, he heads into the kitchen, trailed by chefs Jerome Bocuse (his son) and Boulud -- both executives of the U.S. committee for the Bocuse d'Or. Jerome Bocuse is chef at Epcot's Les Chefs de France and Boulud owns top restaurants such as Daniel and Cafe Boulud in New York.
Paul Bocuse holds up two fingers and says definitively, "Deux bons plats."
Boulud translates this fundamental piece of advice: "Two good platters. To win, you cannot have one very good and one not so good."
In five hours the chefs must prepare everything from scratch, including breaking down a whole cod and butchering a 9-pound rib roast. Going under the microscopic scrutiny of these judges, Hollingsworth and Guest must make every cut on every dish with surgical precision.
"Our first full run for Orlando we were four or five hours over," Hollingsworth says. "But we've been making good time; we've even had time to wash dishes."
Since early October, he has been in the training kitchen 40 to 50 hours a week, experimenting with different dishes and combinations, scrapping them when they didn't work, then going in a new direction.
Despite having hammered out dishes nearly every day, and even with the competition so near, at this point Hollingsworth has prepared the full menu only twice.
History isn't on Hollingsworth's side. Until 1999, France won every year that it competed. (The winner takes home the golden Bocuse trophy and about $26,000 in euros.) For the last decade, Norway has proved an upstart rival.
"Look at the winners," says Hartmut Handke, the highest-ranking former U.S. contestant, who placed sixth in 2005. "France and Norway, Norway and France. It's going to be extremely hard to break into this monopoly."