Day 1: Baking Team U.S.A.

King Arthur Flour certified master baker Jeffrey Hamelman is spending this week coaching Baking Team U.S.A. as it prepares for the “bread-baking Olympics” in Paris this coming March. He’ll be posting regular reports from the team’s practice facility in Providence, R.I.

The Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie is the foremost bread competition in the world. It takes place in Paris every three years (beginning in 2010 it will occur every two years). It was founded by Christian Vabret, a renowned baker and educator from Aurillac, France, whose vision was to create a venue that would showcase the finest qualities of baking skill, and at the same time foster and further the worldwide camaraderie among bakers. The structure of the Coupe is fairly straightforward: 12 countries from around the world participate in the competition. Each of the countries sends three bakers, who compete in one of three categories: Baguettes and Specialty Breads; Viennoiserie (lightly sweetened yeasted pastries); and Artistic Design. Within each of these categories, there are strict and precise rules that the bakers must abide by. In the bread category, each competitor must make five different doughs. Baguettes, the classic French bread, are mandatory, unlike the other four doughs, which are chosen by each country based on the bread’s flavor, visual quality, or connection to the country’s bread heritage. In the Viennoiserie category, five different doughs must be made, from which dozens of final products will be finished and displayed for judging. In the Artistic Design category, the baker must make an elaborate sculpture, based on a pre-assigned theme (for example, bread in the history of mankind, or the relationship among farmers, millers, and bakers) to which each competing country must adhere. The finished work cannot use any artificial supports such as wood or metal, and the finished dimensions cannot exceed one cubic meter in size.

The bakers from each country have a 1-hour prep session the evening before their competition day in order to make pre-ferments or syrups or the like; the next day, they have 8 hours to scale, mix, ferment, divide, shape, bake, finish, and, finally, display their work. Once finished, the work is rigorously judged by a panel that is comprised of one head judge, and one judge from each of the 12 competing countries (the judges cannot judge the work done by their own compatriots). The competition is spread out over a 3-day period, with four countries competing each day. And how are the 12 countries chosen? The top three finishing teams are automatically invited to compete in the next Coupe. The other nine countries are chosen based on a series of baking competitions that take place around the world, with the winners having a slot in the next Coupe.

This system ensures that there is always a high percentage of new countries being brought in, which serves not only to showcase new techniques, products, and ideas at the competition, but it also makes the competition truly global in its scope. The countries competing in the 2008 Coupe du Monde are the US, France, Japan (the top three finishers in 2005), Turkey, Mexico, Taiwan, Argentina, Poland, Sweden, Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands.

The first Coupe was held in 1992, with subsequent ones taking place in 1994, 1996, 1999, 2002, and 2005. The US was first invited to compete in the 1994 competition. We finished well enough to return. In 1996 we won first place in the Baguettes and Specialty Breads category (how this shocked the baking world!). In 1999 we won the Gold–first place! In 2002 we came in second behind Japan; in 2005 we again won Gold. The next Coupe du Monde will take place March 30, 31, and into April, 2008.

This year’s US team was chosen after a series of regional competitions that that were organized and managed by The Bread Bakers Guild of America. The regionals culminated in a final competition that was held in San Francisco in May, 2007. Solveig Tofte of Minneapolis won in the Baguette and Specialty Bread category (she will also serve as the team captain); Peter Yuen of Chicago will be the Viennoiserie member; and Dara Reimers of Maine will compete in the Artistic Showpiece category. The team has met for some initial practice sessions over the past several months, in Orlando, Minneapolis, and Scottsdale, Arizona.

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 6, 2007

The three team members have flown in to Providence, Rhode Island for a practice session at Johnson & Wales University. The coaches for this session are Ciril Hitz (an instructor at Johnson & Wales and team member in 2002) and Jeffrey Hamelman (myself) of Vermont (team member in 1996). We met the team at the bakeshop, and after giving them an overview of equipment and ingredients, the timer was set and they began their 1-hour prep session. Peter mixed some of his pastry doughs, Dara made syrups for her pate morte (literally “dead dough,” that is, unyeasted dough used for a variety of decorative motifs), and Solveig made some pre-ferments to be used in the next day’s final doughs.

Once cleanup was done, Ciril, the team, and I went to an Indian restaurant to relax, have an easygoing visit, and share food. We finished with a discussion of the objectives and expectations for the next day’s work. Then it was back to the hotel for some rest before beginning in earnest the next morning. Peter’s luggage had not arrived with him. It was sent on the next plane, and everyone was relieved that it had arrived–with all his tools and many of his special ingredients–and was at the hotel when we returned after dinner.