First photo above: Skylar Stover, left, hard at work during the first day of the competition. Second photo: Stover, second from right, celebrates after Team USA’s second-place Bocuse d’Or finish. With him are, from left, Christophe Muller, executive chef at L’Auberge Du Pont de Collonges, the signature restaurant under the Paul Bocuse Group; Chef Philip Tessier; and Team USA coach Gavin Kaysen. Photos © Meg Smith.
Even if he’d stayed in Seattle, cooking at up-andcoming restaurants, Skylar Stover would have been notable among graduates of Fort Vancouver High School’s Culinary Arts program of choice.
If he’d simply worked on the line at the French Laundry, famed chef Thomas Keller’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Yountville, California, that consistently tops best-restaurant lists around the world, he’d still have built a professional résumé that few other 23-year-olds can match.
But last January, Stover catapulted into American culinary history with an unparalleled feat at the Bocuse d’Or, an international competition that takes place every two years in Lyon, France. His meteoric rise in just five years is perhaps unexpected for someone who didn’t grow up the son of chefs, dining in fine restaurants. In fact, he didn’t live in much of a food-obsessed household at all.
What he did have, even at a young age, was an abundance of focus and a desire to work.
Born in Nampa, Idaho, Stover moved to Vancouver at age 12. Transitioning to Gaiser Middle School wasn’t easy. He was placed in a structured learning class and put on an individualized education plan. Stover admits that he wasn’t the strongest student when it came to academics. But he wanted to change that. “I quickly found out that’s not the person I wanted to be,” he remembers.
In a move that would define his character for the next decade, he bent to the task and worked. Hard. In eighth grade, he left the structured learning class and began to consider learning how to cook. He shed his IEP in ninth grade. And though his parents divorced that year, Stover gained needed structure in the half-day Culinary Arts program.
He learned the basics and some valuable techniques in Culinary Arts over the next four years. Says Stover, “Depending on how much you want to know, or push yourself, is how far you can get.” He also learned about professionalism, how to interview and shake hands.
Stover immersed himself in the options through the program. His senior year, he picked up catering gigs and worked at the Passport Café located at the Jim Parsley Education, Family and Community Center.
“Usually it’s the willingness to work that separates young people,” says Finnie. “Over four years, it became apparent that he had focus and drive and understood how to follow directions. That alone was unique.”
After his 2010 graduation, Stover moved to Seattle. A recommendation from Finnie secured a job at the now-defunct Book Bindery, headed by rising culinary star Shaun McCrain.
But being in a professional kitchen, albeit a small one, was a strange experience for the rookie. More than once Stover seized up with fear on the line.
Just as in middle school, hard work was his saving grace. He manned every station at the Book Bindery over the next three years, eventually becoming the chef tournant. With promotions came McCrain’s growing confidence in Stover, as well as a recommendation to the chef de cuisine at the French Laundry.
The French Laundry also was intimidating, with its large kitchen staff and $300 prix-fixe daily menu rotations. “Spending one week there is like spending a month at another restaurant. The learning curve is huge,” Stover says. Fifteen-hour days were the standard as he slowly worked up from a commis, or apprentice, to chef de partie of the cheese station and then chef de partie of the garde manger station.
And just as in the Culinary Arts program and at the Book Bindery, his tremendous focus caught the eye of his colleagues.
In early 2014, then–French Laundry Executive Sous Chef Philip Tessier asked Stover to serve as his commis for the Bocuse d’Or, of which Stover had only glancing knowledge. He agreed anyway. “When the chef asks you to do something, you do it,” he says.
But the Bocuse d’Or is no casual commitment. An event for the culinary history books, it pits the best professional chefs from 24 countries against each other in an event that calls to mind the Olympics in terms of its intensity, fan fervor, spectacle and media coverage. The competition is named after the great Paul Bocuse, the Culinary Institute of America’s Chef of the Century. Earning a spot on the podium is, for a chef, akin in prestige to an author taking home a Pulitzer Prize.
History had not been kind to past American teams, however. The best showing was sixth place, in 2009. But with lauded chef Gavin Kaysen as coach and serious players in the national culinary scene supporting the team, the USA would not be denied a spot on the podium in 2015.
Thus began 10 months of intense preparation. As Stover and Tessier transitioned out of their roles at the French Laundry and into training seven days per week, Stover sacrificed nearly all communication with friends and family. There was no time for fishing, his favorite hobby. Eighteen-hour workdays ended with three hours of sleep. Endurance-building workouts began at 6 a.m. The team fanatically researched past Bocuse d’Ors. “It’s an art form. You practice your art,” says Stover. “It was intense.”
By the time he landed in Lyon, however, training had built up Stover’s confidence. On the day Team USA competed, Stover, Tessier and an appointed dishwasher spent nearly five-and-a-half hours transforming some 185 ingredients into just two dishes reminiscent of the Napa Valley: a meat platter featuring a barrel-oak roasted guinea hen with sausage of guinea leg confit, white corn mousse and black winter truffle, as well as five sides. The fish plate showcased a brioche-crusted brown trout pavé with American caviar, tartelette of crisped skin, garden dill, celery branch “Farci,” celery root puree, compressed apples, brown butter emulsion and smoked mushroom consommé.
“After the first day, we knew we’d done something remarkable,” remembers Stover. The buzz for the team was good. And at the awards ceremony, that hunch was confirmed as the U.S. was awarded the silver medal. Just nine points shy of first-place Norway.
Not only was it the highest showing ever for the American team, it also was the highest placement by any non-European country in Bocuse d’Or history.
Yet Stover managed to retain a sense of reality and humility. He says, “The whole competition is bigger than us. I’m just glad to be a part of it.”
Not long after the Bocuse d’Or, however, he made the difficult decision to leave the French Laundry. He’d like to someday start a family. Perhaps open a restaurant. For now, he’s content to travel and cook around the world. Next stop: Spain.
With the Bocuse under his belt, he can do anything in this highly creative, competitive industry. Years from now, culinary innovation may very well be synonymous with the name Skylar Stover.
It’s only the beginning.