by Mike Sula
Our European correspondent Bob McCamant, reporting from Europain 2008, sent this dispatch on the fate of Argyle Street baker Peter Yuen in the annual World Cup of Baking. Yuen, a member of Bread Bakers Guild Team U.S.A., was the subject of the Reader's March 20 cover story.
Paris, April 2, 2008: The French team won Le Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie for 2008, delighting a crowd of enthusiastic French baking students who swelled the ranks of fans. The contingent from Taiwan won second place, Italy third.
For Team USA, the only bright spot was Chicago's own Peter Yuen, who took fourth place in the individual Viennoiserie category. "This means I get to come back to France in two years to compete in an individual competition," he said.
The scoring for the competition changes from year to year, and much depends upon the personal opinions of the judges, none of whom are from countries with entrants in the competition. Factors include taste, appearance, timely production, and even cleaning up your kitchen at the end, which falls under the heading of "professionalism." The problem is that nobody seems able to predict how the various categories will be weighted in any given year. Team USA suffered from some bad luck in the artistic design category, which was the responsibility of Dara Reimers, from Maine. Her representation was of baseball and apple pie, and she constructed a window in the process of being broken by a baseball knocked through it. The intentional breakage part worked fine, but unexpectedly, the window frame itself split in several places (mind you, everything in the construction was composed of bread or other edibles). This required patching, which took up extra time and left Reimers--who'd been supposed to work on sandwiches as well--behind in her duties. The team finished 22 minutes after the deadline, but until (or if) the scoring is announced, nobody will know how much they were penalized.
The third U.S. team member was Solveig Tofte of Minneapolis, who was responsible for the baguette and specialty bread competition. Each team was required to prepare baguettes from a standard "traditional" recipe as well as ones in unusual shapes, which were required to have ascorbic acid, a frequent additive in French baking but one with which she normally does not work. Here again, in these categories it's very hard to predict how the scoring will go. It all depends on the opinions of the judges, and even renowned experts disagree on who makes the best baguette in Paris. (For my part, the best of ten or more I've tasted on my visit is that of Eric Kayser, with the one from Arnaud Delmontel coming in a close second.)
Dara and Solveig joined a female team member from Mexico this year in sexually integrating the competition, which previously had been men only.
The Coupe du Monde is only a small part of Europain, an international baking show held every three years in Paris. Europain 2008 occupied four giant halls of a convention center near Airport Charles De Gaulle. There was some irony in the handicraft contest being held in the maw of the huge trade show, with its vendors of everything from bakery signage to machines that can mix dough, form it, raise it, and bake it with little or no human intervention. But many commercial bakers got their start as artisan bakers, so they would often stop by to see what the competitors were doing. And actually, these artisan competitors made use of mixers, digital scales, and electric ovens with multiple shelves magically maintained at a controlled temperature and humidity, so that a baker of 1808 who could have produced most of the same products would have done so in an entirely different way.