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Chef vs. Clock

As Peter Yuen heads to France for the world cup of baking, his worst enemy is time.

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Peter Yuen has barely begun to set up his workstation for practice, but his digital metronome is already nagging. Where others might hear an innocuous if somewhat annoying ticking, Yuen detects something more personal. "'Are you done yet? Are you done yet? Are you done yet?' That's what I hear," he says. And the answer is no, no, no. But that's why Yuen bought the metronome at a guitar store—he needs it to help him set a quick pace in the kitchen. It's 9:33 on a Sunday morning, and Yuen is already running 33 minutes late.

Yuen has come to Bennison's, the Evanston bakery owned by his coach, Jory Downer, because he's in training for the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie—the World Cup of Baking. He and his assistant, Kevin Valentine, heft two dark green suitcases onto a table and take out Yuen's tools: a spatula, a whisk, a knife as long and sharp as a machete. He'll compete from March 30 to April 3 in Paris with the rest of the Bread Bakers Guild Team USA, and part of his preparations involve working in unfamiliar spaces. He's been shuttling his suitcases from his own Argyle Street bakery, La Patisserie P, to Bennison's and to Kendall College, the culinary academy on Goose Island where he works as an adjunct professor, and the guild has arranged for the team to practice with coaches in Minneapolis, San Francisco, Arizona, and Rhode Island. Tags from a recent trip to the east coast still hang from Yuen's suitcases.

Yuen, 37, has competed before—he's twice been named a finalist for pastry chef of the year in a prestigious competition sponsored by importer Paris Gourmet—but the cup is a chance for international acclaim. Launched in 1992 by the president of the Ecole Française de Boulangerie d'Aurillac, an acclaimed French baking school, the contest is held every three years at Europain, a bakery and catering exhibition in Paris, and making the cut is something like qualifying for the Olympics. Yuen and his teammates—Dara L. Reimers from Auburn, Maine, and Solveig Tofte from Minneapolis—beat out a vast pool of American applicants in three rounds of eliminations and make up one of 12 teams in competition. All three will contribute to the "savory" category—which includes gourmet sandwiches and breads—and each will compete in a solo specialty: Reimers in artistic design, Tofte in baguettes and specialty and ethnic breads, and Yuen in Viennoiserie, or breakfast pastries. Sweet dough is Yuen's strength; his weakness is time.

Yuen finished over the time limit at both the regional and the national competitions, and according to Downer only his baking skills saved him from elimination. "His product is spectacular," says Downer. "So when it came to picking the team, his product is definitely far better than anyone else's."

Downer has some insight into both the cup and Yuen's baking. When Downer himself made the U.S. team in 2005, Yuen called him up and asked to be his assistant. When Yuen made this year's team , he turned to Downer again, asking for baking insights and the use of the Bennison's kitchen. Yuen started practicing with Downer in September, committing to at least one eight-hour training run a week. At the cup, competitors will have one hour to make their dough and then eight hours to prepare their pastries. Yuen and the rest of the Viennoiserie masters must make five products, 15 small and three large of each.

The kitchen in Bennison's is covered with flour: it forms a halo around the center island, clings to Yuen's checkered pants, and outlines the word "Fortuna" on the machine used to divide and shape rolls. As Yuen unpacks, the white powder shifts like snow in the pans stowed under the table.

A faint growth of beard shadows his round jaw. His cheeks and ears are pink from the cold. He can look like an overslept schoolboy in a Bulls sweatshirt and tousled hair, but this morning, in chef's jacket and hat, he looks every inch the serious baker.

Yuen swiftly brushes the flour off a machine used to roll out dough. "It's goofy dirty," he mutters. Then he runs back to the suitcase, whistling discordantly.

"There's certain steps we'll have to minimize," Yuen tells Valentine. "Try to streamline the process."

Valentine is a lanky, sleepy-eyed 27-year-old snowboard bum who turned to baking after he hit a tree. He met Yuen at Kendall, where he and the other students labor in kitchens plastered with signs reading "TAAT: Taste Analyze Adjust Taste." He ambles around the kitchen at half the speed of his master.

Yuen's cell phone rings. He pauses long enough to dig it out of his back pocket. "Goooood morning! I'm in your shop!" he says with a grin.

It's Downer checking to see if Yuen has arrived on time.

At 10:08 Valentine turns to the bulky digital timer. He sets the clock. Practice begins. They have eight hours to go.

Yuen rifles through the drawers in the miniature plastic chest at his station. Each drawer holds a different ingredient—milk powder, yeast, sugar, salt, vanilla, bread flour. "He spends a lot of time thinking about how he can store something better, to be more efficient," Valentine says.

Earlier in the week, Yuen had driven his old green minivan to the Container Store in Lincoln Park, his radio tuned to a country station. He arrived close to the 9 PM closing time and wandered the empty aisles before spending 15 minutes examining butter boxes under the watchful eye of a bored cop who'd come in for a browse. Yuen finally selected a few containers and shelled out $31 at the checkout.

Yuen says he's been making a lot of trips like that lately, and combined with the training, they're cutting even more into the time he spends at his bakery on Argyle. He usually puts in about four hours a day there and then trains for another ten. "There's no set hours," he says. "Sometimes I don't go home at all." Sometimes Yuen falls asleep at the bakery like a student nodding off at the library during cram week.

Everyone thinks the "P" in La Patisserie P stands for Peter, but it really stands for "passion." Yuen's been around pastry since he was a child in Hong Kong, training with his father, who was also a baker. In 1981, when he was 11, his family moved to Chicago and his father opened New Hong Kong Bakery on Argyle . In Hong Kong Yuen, surrounded by so many British, Yuen had pictured America as a land of rolling countrysides and meat pies. Instead he was introduced to a very different landscape: he, his parents, and his three sisters lived in an apartment above the bakery, and their street was bustling with Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants shopping in Asian groceries and bakeries—not a blade of grass in sight.

Yuen helped out in the bakery, frying doughnuts before school and then mopping up when he got home. His father taught him to make the basics—butterfly cookies and traditional Chinese custard tarts. During summers off from high school at Lane Tech, Yuen returned to Hong Kong to train in the kitchens of master bakers. He followed the elderly experts around their dark kitchens, the air thick with oil, cleaning their workspaces so he could get close enough to watch them bake. "If I could clean around them, I get to learn with them," Yuen says. "They're not going to give you a freebie without you hustling for it. Teaching somebody in the baking business sometimes is liking giving up your tricks."

After high school, Yuen tried out the academic life, attending college at the University of Illinois at Chicago and in Hong Kong, but never finished. He was back in the States when he met his future wife, Susan—over the phone. Yuen's aunt worked with Susan's mother in China, and the families thought the two would get along. Susan, who was studying in China to be a secretary, engineered their first face-to-face meeting. "It's about almost my birthday, so he asked me what kind of birthday gift I want," she recalls. "So I said, 'I want to see you in person.'"

They married in January 1994, and the next year Susan came to live in Chicago and work the register at New Hong Kong Bakery. Meanwhile, Yuen tried his hand at marketing, launching a wholesale baking business. That failed within a year, and soon after he returned to the kitchen, working in the bakery before enrolling in 2000 at Chicago's French Pastry School, which is owned and operated by acclaimed pastry chefs. In 2004, after working at upscale hotels like the Four Seasons, Yuen bought the bakery from his family and changed the name. The store's purple sign and European name now stand in sharp contrast with the rest of the stores on the street.

Since September, when Yuen's training began in earnest, Susan has taken on the bulk of the responsibilities at La Patisserie P, working every day from eight in the morning till seven at night. After school the couple's three children do their homework either at church or in the care of Susan's parents.

"I've missed a lot of family stuff," Yuen says. "That's the biggest sacrifice that I think I have to endure. You may be competing for the competition, but everybody moves along. They have their life."

So far he's missed two years of trick-or-treating. "I'm the stranger in a way," he says.

At Bennison's Yuen begins the lamination process, layering butter and dough to make the base for the breakfast pastries. He watches a worker carry a birthday cake to the front of the shop. A plastic dump truck perches atop the sugary surface, plunging into layers of icing. Up front, a child shrieks, "Cake!"

"Ohhhh," Yuen says as he folds the dough and butter like an expert gift wrapper. "Did you ever have a cake like that?" he asks Valentine.

"I didn't eat cake when I was younger," Valentine answers. "I still don't—" He trails off, noticing that Yuen is once again absorbed in the dough, frowning in concentration as he takes the perfect buttery squares he shaped the night before and rolls them out. Yuen often stops for a joke, or pauses for a passing comment, but rarely long enough for anything you'd call a conversation. Susan doesn't even bother to call him when he's training.

Around 3 PM Valentine ambles over to Yuen's workstation to watch his master. He's been fashioning a stencil for Yuen off and on for the last five hours, cutting into a sheet of plastic with a razor blade. He pops a piece of heart-shaped dough into his mouth.

"Don't eat dough in front of me," Yuen says.

"You have to taste everything," Valentine reminds him.

"But it's raw," Yuen says, punching out hearts with another homemade tool. Yuen makes most of his equipment; this one was fashioned from a plastic disk, cookie cutters, and a plastic bottle top. At the French Pastry School, the other students would always ask if his tools were custom-made.

"Yes," he would reply. "By me."

The suitcase is full of them—intricate stencils and molds made from razor blades affixed to plastic. "They call me MacGyver," he jokes.

Valentine wanders back to the table and sits down, his long legs splayed on either side of a milk crate he's using as a stool. Now he lifts the stencil he's been working on to show the chef his progress. It's supposed to be a pumpkin, a decoration for the pumpkin brioche. (Yuen forgot the canned pumpkin, and sent Valentine down to the storeroom to fetch some. All he could find were yams.)

Yuen isn't impressed. "It looks like a mushroom. Or a spore," he says. "That could be used in New York State. But not in France."

Sometimes, Yuen says, he stays up nights thinking about France and his recipes. "I would say it's 'Sleepless in Chicago' for sure," he says, laughing. On those nights he watches TV in his bedroom, studying the cooking products on the late-night infomercials. "Some of the best ones come around 2 AM," he says.

Since May he's purchased a travel-size convection oven, a self-propelling pot-stirring device, and a Magic Bullet blender. According to teammate Tofte, he's a madman for gadgets, and Yuen says he wouldn't mind being one of the people hawking them to other sleepless chefs. "I would someday like to be one of the inventors."

Something to look forward to, maybe. Yuen figures this is probably his last chance for the cup; three years from now "I will be too old," he says.

"You have one hour and 15 minutes," Valentine tells him, looking up from a new pumpkin stencil.

"Are you sure?" Yuen asks. The pastries stand side by side on the main table, their golden crust glistening with glaze. Yuen holds a container of raspberry garnish.

Valentine checks the clock again. He's added an extra hour by mistake. Yuen has only 15 minutes to finish.

He balances a garnish on a pastry rose.

The metronome asks, "Are you done yet?"

He dusts sugar on lacquered glaze. He sprinkles crushed pistachios on a star-shaped tart.

The metronome asks, "Are you done yet?"

He pipes a creamy filling into the yam-flavored brioche. He squeezes it into a heart-shaped crevice.

The metronome asks, "Are you done yet?"

Yuen pauses. The table blooms with a garden of stars and roses and sugary swirls. The smell of butter, sweet liqueur, and melted chocolate escapes like a sigh from the layers of dough as the pastries cool.

The alarm goes off. Yuen's still holding the tube of filling, but he's done—this time.v

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