Baking Team USA, day 1: January practice sessions

The Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie–“the bread-baking Olympics”–is now about 10 weeks away, and the three bakers who’ll represent the United States–Solveig Tofte of Minnesota (breads), Peter Yuen of Chicago (viennoiserie), and Dara Reimers of Maine (artistic design)–have returned to the Johnson & Wales campus in Providence, Rhode Island for more practice sessions.

This is the first time they’ve practiced together since early December, and a rather significant and prolonged “event” punctuated the time between December and now–the Christmas bake, busiest time of the year for professional bakers. Both Solveig and Peter work in bakeries, and the demands of the holiday baking season had to take precedence over practices.

In spite of the expected hiatus, both of them, and Dara too, found time to work on their products over the past month, and there’s definitely been perceptible progress in all of their work. The coaches for this four-day training session are Ciril Hitz, a baking instructor at Johnson & Wales; Jeff Yankellow, a bakery owner from Phoenix (and a member of the gold-winning U.S. team in 2005); Jory Downer, a bakery owner from Chicago (also a member of the 2005 team); and myself, Jeffrey Hamelman, head baker at the King Arthur Flour Bakery in Vermont.

Shortly after Christmas, the rules for the upcoming Coupe were released, all 29 pages’ worth. In French. It’s typical for the rules to change to some extent for each running of the competition, and also typical for them to be released roughly 3 months before the actual event. There were some changes for both the bread and viennoiserie categories, and a bit of an initial flurry of concern about some of those changes. Ultimately the French was deciphered, and the required changes are being brought into production; last week the English translation of the rules arrived. Dara received the theme for the artistic design category: bread as a symbol of your country.

The biggest change between the December practice and the current one is that the pressure on the competitors is substantially greater now. Time is short; excuses for substandard products are not admissible; being late is not an option. Sweat forms on the three brows earlier today than it did in December. Precious points will be lost in Paris if all work is not completed in the allotted 8-hour timeframe. All the competitors have their individual time schedules printed out, which enable them to know down to the minute if they’re on time with their work. As coaches, it becomes imperative that we watch each person work and try to point out ways that seconds can be saved. “If you don’t care about a penny, you won’t care about a dollar,” said Jory, quoting his German grandmother. His context was that if the three bakers lose seconds, these will add up to minutes in no time–and lost minutes can result in a lost competition.

The day is nearly done. As expected, some time issues remain. Progress is evident. The need for much more is equally evident. Describing some of the details of the day’s work requires discretion on my part. As this is a public space, and anyone so inclined is able to access this site, there are already a considerable number of specific aspects of the team’s work that I can’t divulge.

In 20 minutes, the timer will sound and the work session will officially end. If the team isn’t quite finished, we’ll allow additional time, as we want to be able to see all products finished. The evaluation of the day’s work will take at least 3 hours, probably more. At the beginning of that time, we four coaches will judge in private. After that, we’ll call in each person to go over his or her work, assess what’s been successful, and address areas that require more focus. Once that concludes, Solveig, Peter, and Dara will spend an hour (as they will in Paris the evening before their day of competition) preparing pre-ferments and doughs for the next day. And tomorrow at 6:30 a.m., the cycle of work will begin again.