Benjamin Vakanas, Prize for the best second - Bocuse d’or 2017
He is 22 years old; he comes from Saint-Raphaël in the Var, and he has just won the Prize for best second at the Bocuse d’Or – a result he didn’t dare hope for… Focus on this cooking enthusiast – who has seen his life transformed overnight.
How did you end up in the kitchen?
In fact, it wasn’t my first choice; I didn’t know what I wanted till… I found out. I did a general STI (Industrial Technology and Science) baccalaureate; I was an electrician with EDF, and then the penny dropped. I’d always been immersed in the world of the kitchen without realising it: my father was a spear fisherman; we always had plenty of fish at home, and my mother cooks really well. She gave me the culture of eating well, of looking for your vegetables from the corner greengrocer’s… As a result I did a professional cuisine baccalaureate in Nice, with an interneeship in a traditional restaurant in Saint-Raphaël, and then I was a second in Brittany in another traditional restaurant. Then one day, at Théoule sur Mer, I discovered gastronomic catering in a Relais & Châteaux and I adored. I felt much more at home in a “gastro” kitchen. More recently, I joined the restaurant Riberach at Belesta in the Pyrenees - and my meeting with the chef Laurent Lemal was decisive…
Did you expect him to choose you as second for the Bocuse d’Or?
Hold on - not at all! In fact, in the beginning it wasn’t planned at all that it’d be me, besides, for France and Europe Léa, another restaurant second, accompanied the chef. I worked very hard and I heard he wanted a different second for the final of the Bocuse d’Or; I applied because it’s really the kind of competition I’m enthusiastic about… One morning the chef Lemal came to see me and said: “Do you want to be my second for the world championships?” For me it was tremendous! I seized the opportunity with both hands.
It must have really changed your daily routine?
Yes, and how! What’s more, I missed the intermediate stages in France and Europe: I had to jump in at the deep end… It’s really phenomenal for a second to live this experience. One day you’re scarcely talking to the chef and you’re doing work in the background, and the next you’re spending whole days with him training! We had very little time; the subject of the fowl came out late September and we got started straightaway.
And throughout this time the restaurant kept running?
Yes the team was fantastic. We couldn’t keep up the service anymore; it was strange training for the competition while the others were sending the dishes, but they really did the job and it was OK. These months of training really brought us close to the chef; we spent our days and evenings together – it created a real team spirit.
And the famous D day… How did you feel?
I wasn’t stressed and the chef was level-headed; I just had to look at him, quite calm, and everything was fine. He reassured me; his very calm character helped me a lot, and I had no reason to get stressed: we knew what we were doing and where we were going.
What’s the second’s role?
The chef’s in charge of the cooking and cutting, and the second’s in charge of the side dressings. The other essential role of the principal second is to take care of the other second drawn by lot at the last moment, who we don’t know at all. I’d trained myself with young cooks; it went really well – it was marvellous. The trial lasted 5 hours 35 minutes in the calm.
Tell us how the victory was announced…
For a start it’s something very special because when you win they don’t announce “Benjamin Vakanas” but “La France!” and symbolically it’s tremendous to be called by the name of a country and not just a person: for just a second the country is you. Next to my first aim – to have my chef win, I’d come for that, and I’d hoped to win the prize for best second but without really believing in it… I had a moment of disbelief when they announced “France”; they sang the Marseillaise; my family and friends applauded, and the chef said to me “Um, I think it’s you”. It was really a very magic moment.