The American team awaits the results in suspense...

Jeffrey Hamelman, director of the King Arthur Flour Bakery, is also a hard-working coach of the United States team that just finished competing at La Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie, the “bread baking Olympics,” in France. This is Jeff’s report from Paris. Note: All photos courtesy of Jeffrey Hamelman and Brinna Sands.

March 29, Day One
As the train emptied out at the Parc des Expositions, hundreds of people from dozens of countries flowed toward the convention center. Europain—the great French baking trade show that takes place in Paris every three years, showcasing the finest in European baking equipment, ingredients, products, and baking schools—was just beginning. And for many of the attendees, the most compelling part of the coming days was La Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie, the foremost baking competition in the world.

Twelve countries—France, the Netherlands, Japan, the United States, Turkey, Mexico, Taiwan, Argentina, Poland, Sweden, Spain, and Italy—each sent three of their finest bakers to stand on the world stage of baking. And over the course of three days, these bakers would present their finest work and hope for a chance to stand on the podium as one of the world’s greatest.

Baguettes and specialty breads, viennoiserie, and artistic design are the three areas of competition, and in an 8-hour period, a monumental array of products must be produced and displayed for the seven judges, professionals chosen from countries that are not competing in the Coupe.

The competition began briskly, and the expectations were high, as the three top-placing countries from the 2005 Coupe du Monde—the United States, Japan, and France—were competing. Rounding out the field for the day was Holland. As each day progresses during the Coupe competition, it can be hard to ascertain how the individual countries are faring. First, because there’s a staggered start to the day, which can make it difficult to get a sense of how each country’s timing is going. And second, because schedules vary considerably—for example, one country may be dividing their baguettes at the beginning of the 4th hour, some at the beginning of the 5th hour.

In any event, there is something (not foolproof by any means, but often a pretty accurate barometer) that often reveals how things are going: just look at the faces. As each hour comes and goes, the level of strain, ease, desperation, confidence, teamwork, and everything in between is revealed—subtly or not—on the faces of the competitors.

After thousands of hours and hundreds of days of single-focused dedication to the individual and collective work, the final day has arrived, and now there are 8 short hours left to perform the drill one last time. And it’s the only time that counts.

There have been times in the past when a competitor has had a disastrous event befall his or her work partway through the day. No matter, in spite of the inner recognition among all the teammates that there is no hope for winning, the work must continue until the final bell. And there have been days as well when a team knows that they are not going to finish on time. Once the 8-hour bell sounds, work can continue, but points are deducted from the team’s total count, and these deductions can have a devastating effect on the country’s final score.

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1996 Baking Team USA: Craig Ponsford, Jeffrey Hamelman, Glenn Mitchell. They reunited in Paris to help coach and support 2008 Baking Team USA.

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The American team's artistic piece.

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French viennoiserie.

There were visible mishaps in the Japanese and American bakeshops during the final hours and, particularly among the Americans, a palpable sense of distress creased the competitors’ faces as the day neared its end. And in fact, the Americans, Japanese, and the Dutch did finish late, right up to the maximum time allotted for late finishing. The ominous consequence ensued—10 points would be deducted from the final score.

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The American team—phew, all done!

Judging followed, a process of 2 hours or more, after which each country’s work was moved to a display area where the public could get good close views of everything.

March 30, Day Two
The next round of four countries showcased their talents—Mexico, Turkey, Taiwan, and Argentina. Another day fraught with some mishaps, and graced with some beautiful successes. The Coupe was a new event for these countries, and it was wonderful to see them offer their best breads and pastries, and their innovative artistic pieces. The Taiwanese, in particular, embodied an intent focus throughout the day, and functioned as a very tight team. Now eight countries had done their time; one day remained.

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Taiwan's artistic piece. Note the hotdogs...

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Taiwan's baguettes.

March 31, Day Three
Poland, Sweden, Italy, and Spain took the stage. As the day progressed, it was clear that the Coupe of 2008 was going to be one of the most competitive ever—there was so much strength revealed by so many of the competing countries. Predicting winners was certainly going to be difficult, and one had to commiserate ahead of time with the seven judges, who surely were going to have a very complex and difficult task.

As the day closed, one could now see the work of all 12 countries on the display stand. Clearly, this Coupe was a showcase of great and varied skills. The breads, the viennoiserie, the artistic design—what a marvel of sights! For the 36 bakers, the long-awaited exhalation was imminent, but not quite at hand: it wouldn’t be till the next day that the awards would be announced.

April 1, Day Four
Hundreds of spectators crowded the area in front of the ceremony—Poles and Japanese with their flags on high, Argentineans dressed in their national colors, French with whistles and horns blaring. Opposite, on the other side of the cordon were the judges, the team captains, various dignitaries, and 36 nervous and expectant bakers. To say all the bakers were winners simply for being there would be no understatement. Yet few would be completely content to hear that—better to hear the name of one’s country loudly and proudly called as one of the top three winning countries. And finally, the time for that announcement arrived.

 

Simply put:
First Place: France
Second Place: Taiwan
Third Place: Italy

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The French team hoists its winning trophy.

I hope the following is not a cliché: The Coupe du Monde is a competition, and the cumulative amount of time that has been invested by the 36 competitors (not to mention the hundreds of people who help them in one way or another over the months) is really not something that can be imagined. And being a competition, it’s inevitable that some people win.

The larger point is—no one has lost. Faces were sad, deflated, crushed, and the great majority of the competitors did not stand on the podium. No matter. All their lives have changed now, and the ways in which they have changed will be revealed over the coming years. No one has lost.

Photo P.S. from Paris:

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A French wood-burning oven bakery.

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“The best baguette in Paris,” 2008: Anis Baoubsa.

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PJ Hamel
The Author

About PJ Hamel

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!