They practised for two solid years. They served a killer velouté concocted with 25 Atlantic lobsters and three bottles of fine cognac on $20,000 hand-crafted silver platters. And they were cheered on by fans in red hockey jerseys waving Canadian flags, honking Canada goose calls.
But David Wong, 37, Canada's hope for the biennial Bocuse d'Or competition, didn't make it to the podium last week as team organizers had predicted. While Mr. Wong's commis, Grace Pineda, 22, who assisted him through the gruelling, five-hour, live cooking event, was named the top apprentice among the 24 countries competing, Mr. Wong finished in a disappointing ninth place.
"It's not the place we wanted to be, but we felt good in our effort," said Mr. Wong, a chef instructor at the Art Institute of Vancouver. "This is the world's most demanding competition."
In the end, Norway, Sweden and France, respectively, took the top three spots in the prestigious professional cooking contest presided over by famed French chef Paul Bocuse.
Mr. Wong and Ms. Pineda made a cohesive team, and Ms. Pineda's award as top commis in the world attests to Mr. Wong's skill as both a chef and a mentor.
"Grace was fantastic and she caught the eye of a lot of chefs today," said Vincent Parkinson, the team's chef de mission and executive chef at the Calgary Golf and Country Club.
Mr. Wong's main dishes - a roll of wild cod and king scallops served with a lobster velouté and rare beef tenderloin with foie gras custard and braised ox cheeks - looked stunning as they were paraded before the 24 star chef judges, including American chefs Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud. Mr. Wong's food was complex and tasted "very, very nice" according to Canada's judge, chef Simon Smotkowicz.
But the team faced technical difficulties and, like France, lost 12 points when their platters were sent out several minutes late.
Mr. Wong's coach, chef Robert Sulatycky, who placed fourth in the Bocuse competition in 1999 (Canada's best showing in the 22-year history of the event), was confident before the contest that Canada would finally reach the podium. Mr. Parkinson said Canada's entry looked strong.
"I was really hoping for top five, but we had to call for an electrician four times today," Mr. Sulatycky said after the event. "That really slowed them down."
Transformers failed, blowing fuses during the competition, and the Canadians faced several hurdles leading up to the event. Their $200,000 budget was small compared with those of other countries: The U.S. team raised more than $500,000, while some reportedly spent up to $1-million to finance their Bocuse bids.
The perils of travel also put an extra burden on Canada compared with the many European teams, who routinely place in the top three spots, namely the logistics and cost of hauling 185 kilograms of equipment and a dozen huge boxes of fresh food across the ocean.
Flight delays caused the Canadian team to arrive in Lyon at 1 a.m., nearly nine hours behind schedule, and forced them to store their carefully selected perishable ingredients on hotel balconies overnight. Mr. Wong scoured local markets to replace items, but some - such as butternut squash - proved difficult to find.
Then, the high school where the team was scheduled to practise was closed for much of the weekend, forcing the chefs to prep food in their hotel rooms while the support team struggled to replace Canadian sous vide thermal circulators, heat lamps, blenders and other electrical equipment with European models compatible with local power sources.
Canada's Bocuse d'Or team says its organization is strong, and they will endeavour to raise more money and make even better plans for the next contest in 2011, when Vancouver chef Ryan Stone will represent Canada.
And both Mr. Parkinson and Mr. Sulatycky said Ms. Pineda, who now travels to Paris for a stage at Joël Robuchon's two-Michelin-star restaurant L'Atelier, is a young chef to watch.
"To have achieved such an exceptional result is testament to David's and Grace's skill and determination, as well as to that of a large group of dedicated professionals who have provided their invaluable support over the past two years," Mr. Parkinson said.
"In the culinary world, there is no greater accomplishment than to be recognized at the Bocuse d'Or."
This year's winners
Gold €20,000 ($32,000)
Geir Skeie, Norway
Silver €15,000 ($24,000)
Jonas Lundgren, Sweden
Bronze €10,000 ($16,000)
Philippe Mille, France
Best commis Grace Pineda,
Best fish dish Jasper Kure, Denmark
Best meat dish Jasper Kure, Denmark