Even as Michael, Magic, Larry, Scottie, and their fellow Olympians were practicing their final dribbles and dunks before devouring an hors d’oeuvre of Latin American teams en route to the big games, a dozen young American chefs were taking their best shots over hot stoves in McCormick Place for the right to represent the USA in the international culinary olympics early next year.

They are the cream of young American-born chefs, culled from a hundred nationwide who sought a shot at the biennial competition that will be held in France’s gastronomic center, Lyons, in late January: the Bocuse d’Or. It is named after its founder and head organizer, Paul Bocuse–perhaps the world’s most celebrated chef.

This gastronomic olympiad, as Bocuse calls it, involves 22 nations, including Australia, Indonesia, South Africa, and Japan. In each competition since they began in 1987, the U.S. has been represented by a chef working in Chicago, though none of them has won the international title.

A half dozen gleaming stainless-steel kitchens have been set up side by side in the great hall of McCormick Place, roped off from the rest of the International Gourmet Show, the June trade fair for makers of candies, sauces, cookware, and other fancy-food miscellany.

On Friday and Saturday morning are the semifinals, during which an imposing panel of international culinary stars will eliminate half of the participants. On Sunday are the finals, which will be based on the anxiety-provoking “mystery basket.”

The dozen chefs come from seven states: three from Arizona, three from Michigan, two from California, and one each from Hawaii, Texas, Virginia, and Washington. They are from small restaurants in tiny towns you never heard of and from luxury-hotel restaurants in major cities. Two are women; none is black. All are required to be native-born, but they bear names as varied as Straha, Vosika, Nahabedian, Janos, Pietruszka, and Goodman.

To get here they had to submit recipes accompanied by color slides of their own original, fully garnished beef tenderloin and French turbot dishes, each set up to feed 12. The applications were worked over carefully by members of the midwest division of the Vatel Club, a national organization of French-speaking chefs. In the local unit–headed by the legendary Jean Banchet, who recently opened a place in Atlanta–are all the superchefs from these environs, including Jean Joho of the Everest Room, Gabino Sotelino of Ambria, Pierre Pollin of Le Titi de Paris, Fernand Guttierez of the Ritz, Bernard Cretier of Le Vichyssois, Yves Robaud of Shaw’s, Bernard LeCoq of Cafe Bernard, and Jean Claude Poilevey of Jean Claude, the chefs’ off-hours hangout.

Yet none of this year’s finalists is from Chicago–or even the suburbs. As almost any of the Vatel Club will confide, the past three winners–Susan Weaver of the Ritz Carlton in 1987, Jeff Jackson of La Tour in 1989, and George Bumbaris of the Ritz Carlton in 1991–were all Chicagoans. And folks from elsewhere began muttering that the “Chicago food mafia” was rigging things for their pals. “So, very sadly,” one Vatelan told me, “there was an informal agreement to eliminate all entries from Illinois, regardless of quality.”

The dozen semifinalists not only have to prepare their recipes from scratch, beginning at 6 AM on either Friday or Saturday, but also have to have it ready within five minutes of a predesignated hour, beginning at noon. “This is, you must remember, a restaurant competition–timing is crucial,” Banchet said.

Michel Bouit, the Vatel member whose firm organized the event, pointed out that the chefs, who are provided the basic meat and fish in their temporary kitchens, are allowed to bring their own assistants, special equipment, and garnish ingredients. But stocks and sauces must be made on the spot, within the appointed hours.

Friday morning I watch John Harings from L’Auberge de Sedona in Sedona, Arizona, prepare his turbot, which he bones and stuffs with lobster mousse and then braises in a white-wine-and-fish stock. He is intense but calm, methodical in every stroke of the knife, every instruction to a sous chef. This group, like the others, is beautifully coordinated within the small area, wasting no motion. All comes together precisely for the presentation to the panel of judges.

His turbot is decorated handsomely with medallions of fresh lobster and truffles. The garnishes are a savarin of mushroom mousse filled with lobster ragout, a croquette made of wild rice and lobster bound with a soubise of shallot, plus baby zucchini whose flowers are stuffed with a puree of carrot and spinach. Every detail is important. The visual presentation counts big–first on the silver platter, then on the plate.

The ten judges in their white jackets are enough to intimidate any cook–or turn an aging restaurant critic positively misty eyed. At one end of a long table is Craig Claiborne, the dean of American restaurant writers and cookbook authors, long associated with the New York Times. Next to him is Pierre Franey, once chef of the Colony, one of New York’s greatest restaurants of its day, now a Times food writer and host of a couple of TV cooking shows. Beside him is Pierre Orsi, chef and owner of a top restaurant in Lyons.

Also at the table are George Bumbaris of the Ritz, last year’s winner; Daniel Durand, a master chef of France with the Seawind Cruise Line; Jean Jacques Dietrich, president of the Academie Culinaire de France in the U.S.; Keith Keogh, president of the American Culinary Federation and president of the jury; Rene Verdon, once chef to President John F. Kennedy; Roger Fessaguet, formerly of New York’s La Caravelle and correspondent for France-Amerique newspaper; and, at the far end, Jacques Pepin, chef to Charles de Gaulle, author of two indispensable books, and host of the best cooking series since Julia Child hit the air.

Five of them will pass judgment on the fish dish, and 15 minutes later the other five will rate the tenderloin. First they gaze at and make notes on the silver-platter presentation. Then the platter is taken back to the “plating table,” where Joho, Poilevey, Pollin, and others make like kitchen aides and compose the items on individual plates.

One by one the judges sniff. They nod. They cut. They bite. They chew. They note.

Franey pulls a spoon out of the holder in his right sleeve and samples just a bit of the juices on their own. Claiborne sips a glass of white wine. Tastes again. Sips again. Notes again.

The entries are given up to 10 points each for eye appeal and originality, and up to 20 for taste–for a total of 40 per judge, or a maximum of 200 each for the fish and the meat.

Harings’s fish dish, we will learn on Saturday afternoon, scores 104 and comes in ninth; his far less elaborate tenderloin dish garners 121 points. His total places him eighth overall–out of the money.

Saturday morning I hang out near the space of Brian Polcyn of the Pike Street Restaurant in Pontiac, Michigan. Watching him and his helpers is like watching a ballet. His beef tenderloin is larded with strips of fat, then roasted rare. It is served with sauteed foie gras and a sauce of natural juices enriched with Madeira wine, plus slices of black truffle and nuggets of smoked ham. Like Harings’s fish, it is a variation on a classic dish out of Escoffier’s bible. His garnishes are a caramelized-onion-and-potato tart topped with parmesan cheese, crisply fried breaded fennel, and a melange of wild mushrooms sauteed with sherry.

The panel likes it. Not enough to give it best “viande.” But it still gets a solid 144.5 points–fifth place among meats. Add to this the 144 Polcyn’s turbot received, and he places third overall. He will be among the six to receive the mystery basket.

The mystery basket is the heart and soul of this culinary contest. Not until shortly after 3 PM do we, or any of the contestants, get to know the contents of this gourmet shopping cart of ingredients. But upon being presented with the list, each of the half dozen finalists must create a menu. All they know beforehand is that there will be some kind of fish and some kind of meat, poultry, or game–plus vegetables, herbs, starches, and staples.

The finalists are Polcyn, Edward Janos of Too Chez Restaurant in Pontiac, Michigan; Carrie Nahabedian of the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel in Santa Barbara, California; Brooke Vosika of the Four Seasons Olympic Hotel in Seattle; Ron Pietruszka of the Hotel Nikko in Beverly Hills; and a third Michigander, Marcus Haight of the Lark–also in Pontiac.

I ask three of the judges if they concurred with the choice of winners. Pepin says, “Of course. I picked all six myself. It was easy. Half of the entries were so clearly below the others that anyone could pick the same six.” I got similar responses from the other two, but never got to see the individual judges’ scorecards.

The six finalists will each get a pair of six- to nine-pound salmon, a couple pounds of scallops, and four dozen each of mussels and shrimp. These must be prepared in some combination with all or most of the following: mushrooms, shallots, garlic, carrots, leeks, zucchini, green onions, lettuce, potatoes, turnips, corn, savoy cabbage, peaches, brown rice, and lentils. They are also given tarragon, chervil, rosemary, and thyme for seasoning. This, of course, is only for the fish course.

Now come a half dozen ducks, a pound and a half of foie gras, four ounces of truffles, and a two-pound slab of bacon. These are to be prepared with shiitake mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, celery, seedless cucumbers, fennel, spinach, apples, lemons, cherries, pearl onions, green beans, and sweet potatoes. The herbs are chives, oregano, and basil; the starches are fettucine and bread.

The staples the chefs may use for either course are milk, butter, olive and canola oils, sugar, champagne vinegar, white and red wine, demiglace, cream, eggs, regular and kosher salt, black and white pepper, flour, cognac, and fish fumet.

The finalists are admonished in print that “the use of foie gras and truffles is mandatory” and that each salmon and duck dish is to be given a name. There are to be three garnitures accompanying the salmon and three for the duck.

Early on Saturday evening they submit their menus.

Early on Sunday morning they begin their work. In each of the stainless-steel kitchens the tension is thick. Making it worse is the large audience of gourmet-show visitors and a few local food and wine junkies. But there are no displays of temperament.

As the first of the fish dishes is brought out at noon, Jean Banchet helps keep the audience out of the way.

I spend time with Pietruszka, but keep checking out the other five. It is astonishing to watch the variations.

Pietruszka comes up with a relatively predictable seared duck breast and braised leg, but his first garniture of foie gras sweet-potato pie is a genuine surprise.

Polcyn roasts the duck’s breast, but he makes a sausage out of the thigh, then piles excess upon riches with a garnish of sauteed foie gras and black truffle sauce. A couple roast the duck whole, but Vosika marinates the breast and roasts it for the entree, then makes a mousse of the leg and a garnish of foie gras.

For the fish course Nahabedian does a fairly traditional whole poached salmon, but he invents garnitures such as shrimp with a brunoise of fennel, a scallop mousse, and a spinach cake. Haight stuffs his salmon with shrimp mousse and tarragon sauce, then comes up with a timbale of spinach and fennel root. Janos sears the salmon and develops a tomato-shrimp ragout for one of its accompaniments.

When it is all over, the chefs and their staffs are as washed out as any decathlon runner. Now they must chew nails until this evening’s big banquet at the Hotel Nikko, where the winners will be announced.

I manfully restrained from noshing on too many of the proffered tidbits during the three-morning event. Well, a nibble here, a slurp there, just for the sake of politeness–and in the interest of science. But I went absolutely nuts at the cocktail party before the banquet, where the Nikko’s Japanese chefs put on an incredible display, from a dozen plain and fancy sushi to exotic sashimi to unknown concoctions–all set out on three giant tables, replete with ice sculpture and endlessly flowing champagne.

The dinner was almost anticlimactic. There was something to be said of course for the starter of asparagus-and-leek terrine with wild rabbit–and the sherry-laced lobster bisque. The rack of veal may have been sliced a bit thick and was perhaps slightly on the tough side, but the morels more than saved it with their earthy flavor.

Most of us seemed to savor this meal, though the finalists I observed did nothing but fidget.

Then it was time for the awards. Best fish was the stuffed salmon of Marcus Haight, who also placed third overall, thanks to his duck roulade in cabbage with foie gras and truffles. Top meat honors went to Brooke Vosika, who marinated her duck breast with rosemary. She took second place overall, aided by her fennel-flavored roast fillet of salmon accompanied by truffled baked potato.

Representing our country in Lyons next year will be Ron Pietruszka, who finished a full 15 points ahead of his nearest competitor. Perhaps it was the foie gras sweet-potato pie, or his truffled turnip puree, the second garnish for his seared duck breast and braised leg. But maybe it was his crisp salmon fillet with its salmon mousse and tartelette of melted leek and fennel.

Perhaps the slim, boyish Pietruszka will become the first American winner. In the last three contests Paris chefs won twice and a Luxembourg chef once. Runners-up included two Belgians and a Norwegian; the third-place chefs were from Germany, Singapore, and Belgium.

Surely it’s our turn now. But how the hell do you train for this contest?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bob Olszewski.