Dreams of Becoming the World’s Best Chef Gave Me Nightmares

Chef Morten Falk tells us what it was really like to prepare for the competition to become the world’s best chef.

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Jan 29 2017, 9:00pm

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All photos by Balder Skånström-Bo
This article was originally published in Danish on MUNCHIES DK on January 17, 2017

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Bocuse d'Or is the world's most prestigious chef competition, and 26-year-old Morten Falk was Denmark's candidate for the main competition in Lyon, where he competed against 23 other candidates from all over the world to turn almost two years' of intense preparation and millions of kroners worth of sponsorship into gastronomic fame and glory. This article was written before the competition, in which Falk eventually finished in 10th place.

I have always wanted to be the best at my craft. The best chef student, the best sous chef, and now the best chef. A person's ambitions increase in line with accomplishing their goals. Since I won the chef competition Chef of the Year just three short years ago, I have received one Michelin star at Kadeau Bornholm, and almost two years ago I became Denmark's candidate for Bocuse d'Or, where I will finally be competing next week in Lyon. Next week I will prove to myself that I can defeat the world's best chefs at the world most meaningful chef competition.

I do not think that you can avoid becoming a bit of a prima donna when you are at the front of a project like this, where everything is about you. Over time, you begin to convince yourself that everything you do is right. You forget to appreciate that people worry about you and want the best for you, and you forget that this, of course, is not their dream. It is your dream.

The pressure also means that, at the end of November, I lost my original assistant to the competition. The pace was unfortunately harder on him than any of us had expected, and we agreed to stop working together in order to ensure that the project went as well as possible. That is, of course, a pity, but we are still good friends, and we have planned to talk about it all once the competition is over. Right now, I simply cannot see it all clearly.

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My new assistant, Joachim Kongsgaard, has worked under Kenneth Hansen from Kvinkløv Badehotel, who was Denmark's candidate for the competition two years ago. Joachim was luckily able to step up almost right away, and he seems like the kind of guy that doesn't shake easily. He has brought with him a new focus. We know each other so well, and that is really a benefit right now. It sounds difficult, but right now he is both a colleague and a vital tool that I need in order to win. There is no time to go out and drink a beer and be friends right now. We'll do that afterwards.

Joachim and I work six days a week in the kitchen out at the Hotel and Restaurant School in Valby. It is arranged precisely the same as the kitchen we will use on competition day in Lyon. In Valby, we meet before 8am every morning and try to be finished by 8pm. But when you're in the middle of something like this, it's so easy to lose track of time. It often becomes 10, 11, or midnight before I can bike home.

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We use Monday and Tuesday to tray and prepare for the three timed trainings we have on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. We have 5 hours and 35 minutes to make 14 plates off the menu for our sponsors, coaches and press. When we are doing timed training, we always turn on the music very loud in the kitchen in order to simulate the noise level in the hall, where there will be thousands of spectators yelling and screaming.

Even though it is almost time for the competition, we are still testing new sauces and garnishes, as we are always trying to optimize both timing and flavor. There are an insane amount of elements to each dish, so we have a checklist with maybe 60 things that need to be in place before we even start. All of the ingredients, knives, and tools that we need must be ready on a tray so we don't have to waste time looking for anything. We have a crazy amount of equipment with us, so we also don't need to waste time on something like washing a knife during the competition.

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Morten Falk with Joachim Kongsgaard.

Right now, thoughts about the menu and logistics are constantly filling my head. I have unfriended my fellow contestants on Facebook because I don't want to see the details of their updates and progress. Luckily, I can still sleep at night. I am really grateful for my seven hours of sleep, even though I have had terrible nightmares where I am in the competition and my stuffings won't mix and my sauces all separate, while the French jury member Régis Macon stands and screams at me.

Last May, my self-confidence suffered a blow when I only just managed to qualify in the initial European championships in Budapest for the world championships in Lyon. I am not used to coming in in tenth place. I was almost depressed afterward, and I felt this deeply all summer, even though I was taking a break from training for the competition by working a little at Kadeau Bornholm.

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I am luckily surrounded by so many talented people who do everything they can to help. "No" is a word I very seldom hear. In August, I called a group of them together for a meeting—Per Thøstesen, Mark Lundgaard, Torsten Vildgaard, and other top chefs in the country. "I cannot do this alone," I said to them. "I need your help." We talked back and forth about everything, and the day after I received a call.

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It was one of the chefs. He said, "Now, listen here. What I'm about to say won't be fun, but if I'm going to spend my time on this, you damn well better pull yourself together. You need to give off some willpower, and I need to be able to feel that you still actually want this."

I needed to let that sink in for a second. "Fuck, what an idiot," I thought. But mostly I thought that because I knew he was right.

That became the kick in the butt that I really needed at that point.

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I believe that I have really pushed myself since Budapest, where I was stretched to my limits for time. This time, the flow will be more organic, and I'll have more time to fix things and make adjustments if any mistakes are made along the way.

Right now, this is my big dream. I truly hope that it isn't still in five years. But, if I do end up winning fifth place, and I know with certainty that there is something I could have done better, I am afraid I won't be able to shake the idea of participating again—even though I don't want to burden those closest to me by going through this one more time.

No matter what, it's going to be a tight competition over there. Everyone else there is obviously fucking awesome and wants it just as much as I do. In the end, it's up to me. I alone decide whether I am the best.

As told to Lars Roest-Madsen