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Trotter's Jennifer Petrusky: Bocuse hopeful and birthday girl

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photo.jpg Do you remember how you celebrated your 23rd birthday? Did it involved beer, a beer-soaked bar, beer-soaked friends -- or perhaps, all of the above?

Go on and keep repressing that memory, if you even have one of that night. Jennifer Petrusky's 23rd birthday, on Friday, will be nothing like yours.

Petrusky is a sous chef at Charlie Trotter's -- so we could just end the story right there, because clearly her life is nothing like yours, or mine, or even that of other sous chefs in other restaurants around town.

But let's keep going: On her birthday, Petrusky will be competing in the Bocuse d'Or USA at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Translation: she will be cooking her ass off.

The Bocuse d'Or is the closest thing to the Olympics in the culinary world. The winner of the national contest will represent the United States in the world competition next year in Lyon, France.

In Europe, the Bocuse is a huge deal. Huge. To place or win the Bocuse d'Or is a point of national pride. It's front page, above-the-fold news. But here in the States, outside of certain culinary circles, the competition registers but a blip. Perhaps not coincidentally, no American chef has never finished in the top three in the world contest.

Also: No female has won the Bocuse d'Or.

Petrusky's boss believes -- says -- she is the one to finally do it.

"It's a foregone conclusion," Trotter said Tuesday with his signature wry smile. "I told her she has a one-way ticket."

We were in the private dining room at the restaurant, invited by Trotter to taste the results of this final practice session of Petrusky and her commis, or assistant, James Caputo. Around the table were chefs Carrie Nahabedian, Sarah Stegner, George Bumbaris and Susan Weaver; food journalist Bill Rice; consultant Jill Van Cleave; two longtime patrons of the restaurant; Trotter's younger brother, Scott; and a member of the service team. (Bumbaris and Weaver both have represented the U.S. at the Bocuse in the past.)

In the Bocuse challenge, chefs are given two proteins -- this year, it's salmon and lamb -- from which they create two entrée platters and six garnishes. This year, the five-hour contest will be divided over two days, Friday and Saturday.

I couldn't help but think back to 2006, when I spent some time watching Primehouse chef Rick Gresh prepare for the same competition. Back then, it was just him and his assistant in the kitchen at the Saddle & Cycle Club, where he was the chef at the time. There were only two other U.S. finalists that year.

In 2008, Bocuse himself asked luminaries Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller to essentially step up the game by creating a training program for American chefs.

And now, here we were, Petrusky the hopeful being examined, salon-like, by industry heavyweights. It was the third such tasting in as many weeks. The game, clearly, is on.

Nahabedian, Stegner and the others around the table didn't tiptoe around in their criticism of Petrusky's dishes.

"It's a risk that it's all cold," Stegner said of Petrusky's salmon presentation (below), which included a salmon roulade, tartar, citrus-cured maki and confit. "Some things were a little rubbery." Nahabedian wanted more heat in the sweetbreads that dotted the lamb kidney in Petrusky's second platter.

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Petrusky, a small-town Wisconsin girl, took it all in. It wasn't anything she hadn't heard before. Or, at least, that she couldn't handle.

At 19, Petrusky landed at Trotter's, first as an intern and then, for six months, as a food runner (there were no kitchen openings). Finally, she started in the kitchen and hasn't looked back.

She talked of her inspiration for her salmon platter -- a tea she'd tasted on a trip to Abu Dhabi with Trotter to cook at a food and wine festival -- the same way the rest of us talk about that really good burger we had for lunch the other day. After the tasting was done, I asked Petrusky if her head was swimming, and how much she'd change things at this stage in the game.

"There's still work that needs to be done on the lamb saddle roulade. It's all in the execution," she said.

Why, I wondered, do you want to compete, when you don't have to?

"At the end of it, it'll really show me what I'm made of," she said.

Petrusky had gotten to the restaurant at 6:30 a.m. that morning to prepare for this tasting. Now, it was time to prepare for the regular dinner service.

It was time for Petrusky to get to work.

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Janet Rausa Fuller

Sun-Times Food editor Janet Rausa Fuller is always thinking about her next meal.

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This page contains a single entry by Janet Rausa Fuller published on February 4, 2010 9:30 AM.

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