The noise was deafening. All around me a cacophony of banging drums, blasting hooters, stamping feet and, inexplicably, a ringing cow bell, was building in volume. The only time I had experienced such a racket of partisan support before was watching England playing Germany at Wembley - but that involved a crowd of more than 80,000.
This time the excitement was over what I had previously thought to be the more genteel activity of cooking. But although I have reported on cookery competitions, home and abroad, for the past 15 years, nothing I had seen before quite prepared me for this.
The event was the Bocuse d'Or, now also officially known as the World Cuisine Competition, and the point had been reached when the home team and favourite to take the prestigious gold award - France - was about to serve up the first of its two dishes.
There was no doubt the pressure was on for the French candidate - Franck Putelat of Restaurant La Barbacane, at the Hôtel de la Cité in Carcassonne - to do well against the 22 other countries competing. In the previous eight Bocuse d'Or competitions since 1987 - the event is held every two years - the French had won it four times. That meant they had taken the gold Bocuse every time they had competed except once, because, until this year, the country winning the event wasn't eligible to take part the next time.
Putelat was also under extra pressure because he was competing on home territory under the gaze of competition founder Paul Bocuse, a man the French revere. Expectations were indeed high.
As Putelat put the final touches to his dish of Norwegian fjord trout accompanied by three garnishes, the crowd went wild. It grew even more frenzied as the huge silver platter bearing the fish was paraded triumphantly in front of the 23 judges and hordes of TV crews and press photographers, accompanied by flashing lights and with commentary from a blatantly partisan announcer.
With the same roars of acclaim greeting Putelat's second dish - based on beef fillet and oxtails - a French victory seemed almost a foregone conclusion.
But it wasn't to be. Amidst scenes of hysteria and razzmatazz that would have graced Hollywood's Oscars, it was announced that the Norwegian candidate, Charles Tjessem, had pipped Putelat to the €20,000 (£13,200) first prize by a single point - and the French supporters were in shock.
They continued to cheer Putelat for taking the Bocuse d'Argent and €15,000 (£10,000) prize money, but the reality was beginning to sink in that Norway had established itself as the second most successful country in the competition's history.
On the only previous occasion - 1999 - when France had been beaten into second place, it was again Norway's candidate, Terje Ness, who came out on top. Tjessem's win was Norway's third, with Bent Stiansen securing its first success in 1993.
In this year's event, British competitor Eyck Zimmer, senior sous chef at Claridge's in London, came a very respectable eighth. Although initially disappointed that he had not done better, a couple of days later Zimmer - supported at the event by Andy Ball, chef de partie at Claridge's - was in a more realistic mood to assess his achievement.
Not only did Zimmer achieve the highest-ever placing of a British candidate in the Bocuse d'Or, but he did so against the odds. The likes of Tjessem and Putelat were given a huge advantage by big financial sponsorship and the support of cheering fans.
To enable him to prepare and focus on the competition for a year, Tjessem had received NKr600,000 (£53,000) in sponsorship, and was given paid time off from his job as head chef for oil company Statoil in Stavanger. The on-the-spot support he received from a solid fan base was equally impressive. While the French supporters were undoubtedly the noisiest at Eurexpo, the competition's venue, the Norwegians had the most fans - about 600. Waving national flags, all were kitted out in official sweatshirts and hats emblazoned with "Norwegian invasion of Lyon" and Tjessem's name.
In stark contrast, Zimmer - who took the unprecedented step of acquiring British citizenship to enable him to represent the UK - had little backing. His total sponsorship was about £4,000 and he was accompanied to Lyons by a tiny, albeit loyal, team of 10.
Zimmer knew from the outset that entering the competition was going to be a hard slog, but he was determined to do it because of an admiration for Paul Bocuse which began in his teenage years back in Germany, his birthplace. "It has really been a dream come true to take part in this event, as Bocuse is the reason I became a chef in the first place," says Zimmer. "When I was 14 or 15 I watched him on television and became fascinated by his passion for food and knew that cooking was the profession for me."
Zimmer was selected by the Academy of Culinary Arts to represent the UK after achieving the highest score in the 2000 Master of Culinary Arts competition.
Although the sponsorship he received was tiny compared with that of many other competitors, Zimmer was keen to thank everyone who helped him, including Heritage Silverware, the Academy of Culinary Arts, Amadeo, Claridge's, Bagatelle Partnership, Waterford Wedgwood, Town and Country, Waitrose, Continental Chef Supplies, Ritter Courivaud, Mash Purveyors, Huge Cheese, Bob Campbell, Grivan, Chamberlain and Thelwell, Finclass, Leon Jaeggi & Sons, Savoy Educational Trust, Craft Guild of Chefs, UBFFoodsolutions (formerly Caterplan), Francis Dairies, Christofle, Portland Shellfish and Richard Shepherd.
Because of Zimmer's limited funding, his preparation for the Bocuse d'Or took over his life in the past year. All his days off and holidays from Claridge's were spent focusing on his entry. "I've had to put my social life on hold, and my partner Christopher has complained that I've been neglecting him as he's had to make do with eating cornflakes and baked beans on toast," he says. "I even spent New Year's Eve until 11pm with John Williams [Zimmer's mentor at Claridge's] discussing my garnishes."
The only benefit of Zimmer's low budget was that he wasn't under the same pressure as some of his rivals. "There was an enormous expectation on some of them, particularly the French guy," he says. "He felt so bad about the result that he didn't even turn up to the gala dinner, which was something of a slap in Bocuse's face."
Having enjoyed taking part in what he describes as a "once-in-a-lifetime experience", Zimmer is looking forward to a break from competitions. He hopes the UK's yet-to-be-chosen competitor for the 2005 event will not have to fight for every penny of sponsorship in the same way he has done.
With the main ingredients for the 2005 competition - Dover sole and veal - already announced, the opportunity is there for support to be offered.
Charles Tjessem's menu
* Crayfish-larded Norwegian fjord trout infused with lemon and tarragon, coco-citrus-curry emulsion
* Shrimp flan with oyster and sevruga caviar
* Potato ganache in crispy crust
* Vegetable bruschetta
* Beef tenderloin with black truffles and duck liver, Madeira reduction
* Braised oxtail in warm Mas Amiel jelly
* Parsnip and pumpkin tian with glazed chipolata onion
* Duck liver and apricot agnolotti in cèpe froth
The chef's task
There was plenty of opportunity for the contestants to practise their dishes, because the main ingredients for the 2003 Bocuse d'Or - two Norwegian fjord trout, and two beef fillets with two oxtails - were announced at the close of the 2001 event. But the opportunity to do so depended on the amount of support each country gave its candidate.
The competition itself involved five hours of preparation and cooking time, in which each competitor had to produce a trout dish and a beef dish, each for 12 covers, and each with three appropriate garnishes.
Eyck Zimmer's menu
* Ensemble of Norwegian fjord trout and scallops, lobster sauce scented with cardamom
* Charlotte of carrots and cauliflower with pine nuts
* Young fennel and Dublin Bay prawns with liquorice-flavoured pumpkin purée
* Cannelloni of Savoy cabbage with Cornish lobster and Caspian pearls
* Roasted beef fillet studded with sweetbreads and foie gras, truffle sauce
* Crown of green asparagus with pea pur‚e and poached bone marrow
* Parmentier of potatoes and carrots with braised oxtail and lacquered chestnuts
* Cromesquis of foie gras with cèpes and sweetbread ragoût
The judge's task
Before the two-day event lots were drawn to decide on which day each of the 24 chefs originally scheduled to take part in the competition was going to compete. Mexico withdrew its candidate at the last minute, leaving 11 chefs taking part on the first day, 28 January, and 12 the next.
The jury, chaired by Ferran Adrià of the renowned three-Michelin-starred restaurant El Bulli in Spain, and François Adamski, the 2001 French winner of the Bocuse d'Or, comprised 25 judges, including one from each competing country. The British representative was Brian Turner, chairman of the Academy of Culinary Arts. Other eminent jurors were Charlie Trotter of the USA, Guy Savoy of France and Gualtierio Marchesi of Italy.
The jury was separated into two groups, one judging the meat and one the fish. Each judge awarded marks out of 60. The highest and lowest marks were discarded when calculating the final scores.
The three top prizes - the gold trophy, based on an effigy of Bocuse, plus €20,000 (£13,200); the silver trophy plus €15,000 (£10,000); and the bronze trophy plus €10,000 (£11,600) - were won by Norway, France and Germany respectively. There were also a number of other prizes. The award for the best fish dish went to Belgium, and the best meat dish prize was won by the USA. Awards for the best apprentice, best promotion and best poster went to Ireland, Russia and Japan respectively.
For Turner, who judged the meat dish, this was the sixth time he had been involved in the Bocuse d'Or. Like all the other judges, he did not know the result until the winner was announced. He was happy with the result because he had rated Norway, France and Germany among the best contenders, but was disappointed Zimmer had not carried off the award for the best meat dish. "Eyck was definitely unlucky on that score, as his beef was one of the best that I tasted," says Turner.
What is clear, though, is that the standard of the top half of the competitors is rising and the contest is getting closer. Only 70 points separated Zimmer from the winner, whereas in previous years there had been a similar margin between first and second places.
"What is happening is that people are coming to grips with what the competition is all about," says Turner. "And, as far as I am concerned, that means precision of taste and seasoning, dishes that are served hot, and garnishes that complement the main ingredient."
Bocuse D'or 2003
The top ten
1 Charles Tjessem (Norway) 944 points
2 Franck Putelat (France) 943 points
3 Claus Weitbrecht (Germany) 940 points
4 Donald Loriaux (Belgium) 921 points
5 Paul Svensson (Sweden) 901 points
6 Hartmut Handke (USA) 899 points
7 Michael Kock (Denmark) 888 points
8 Eyck Zimmer (UK) 874 points
9 Myrdal Björgvin (Iceland) 856 points
10 Henry Tikkanen (Finland) 854 points