Though narrowly missing a top-three spot at the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie, the 2008 Bread Bakers Guild Team USA jumped some unexpected hurdles and proved they belong among the world’s elite bakers.
Team members Solveig Tofte, Dara Reimer and Peter Yuen left the competition, nick-named the Coupe, tired and disappointed, but without regret. “I'm happy it's over, as the last year has been crazy, but I certainly wouldn't trade it for anything,” Tofte says. “I met the best bakers in the world, I met the challenge and managed to do pretty well.”
To the delight of the hometown crowd, France took first place and the rights to the bronze-cast bread boule Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie trophy. Upstart Taiwan followed in second place, and Italy rounded out the top three. By virtue of their finish, the three teams qualified to participate in the next Coupe. The next Team USA will need to qualify through regional competitions.
Teams consisted of three participants, each responsible for a specific category. Yuen, who handled viennoiserie, was individually honored as a top-four finisher in the division. Tofte handled the baguette, specialty and ethnic breads division, and Reimer was responsible for the artistic design category. A category introduced in 2005, savory selection, encouraged teamwork.
“I don't think we could honestly say we wanted to finish anywhere but the top three, but we're very proud of the team,” says Jeff Yankellow, owner of Simply Bread, Phoenix, and the team's coach. “We overcame some things that we didn't foresee in practice, and we still made products that looked and tasted world-class.”
A full points list, released after the bakers had returned home, revealed how close Team USA was to a coveted top-three finish. Out of 700 possible points, second-place Taiwan and fourth-place Team USA were only separated by one point. Italy edged Team USA by a margin of less than half a point. The news led to a few inevitable groans. Tofte had nightmares about what she could have done differently, but they were short-lived. Now, the results offer vindication.
“For certain, we didn't finish within the eight hours allotted, so we were docked 10 points right there. If not for the penalty, suddenly we'd be in second,” Yankellow says. “Seeing the scores now, I feel a lot better about our performance, it shows how strong our products were and how well the team did. They hit some speed bumps and things that they didn't encounter in practice, but they didn't give up and finished right at the top.”
And there were plenty of speed bumps. The team planned on setting up when they arrived on Easter Sunday, but holiday-related closures kept them locked out until Tuesday. Upon finally gaining access, they had to scramble to track down the correct practice flour. Yankellow said it was stressful walking into the facility, already behind, to find 8 bags of the wrong flour.
“If you really are on the top of your skill set, it shouldn't matter,” says Craig Ponsford, owner of Artisan Bakers in Sonoma, Calif., and team consultant. “It's exciting, actually. Part of the training is using different flour types. If you are well-trained, you should be able to figure it out pretty quickly.”
The team endured a facility that didn't live up to amenities Team USA had enjoyed in years past, then were in for another surprise on the morning of the competition. The competition space was flooded and the rack oven's steam injection did not work.
But the team overcame these issues and refused to use them as an excuse. Team members credit a training regimen aimed at teaching adaptation and thinking on the fly, with their ability to deal with the curveballs they faced.
In years past, a single facility was used for all of the training. This time around, the training occurred at a dozen sites across the United States. The selection and training processes exposed each team member to advice and criticism from a number of bakers.
“The travel was my favorite, not the planes, but being exposed to so many shops, ovens and pieces of equipment,” Tofte says. “My Achilles' heel was that I haven't baked in many different places, so a new situation would freak me out, and I'd start out behind the curve in terms of confidence level. Having used so many mixers, so many ovens with different quirks, though, it teaches you to stop being scared of equipment.”
Yankellow and the training staff would change the layout of the bakery on the third day of a practice visit, just to throw the team off and force them to adapt to an unfamiliar situation.
“By putting them in different facilities, it opens them up to the unknown and helps them to adapt,” Yankellow says. “That's important once you get to Paris, as they found out.”
But Tofte and Reimer couldn't have prepared for some of the jarring cultural differences that separated the teams. With two out of three members being women, Team USA represented a departure from the traditionally male-dominated competition. The team was among the few teams in Coupe history to feature a female majority, a breakthrough that the BBGA is celebrating by selecting women bakers as Master Class teachers at 2008 Guildhall Gatherings. Unfortunately, that also made for some uncomfortable commentary and treatment from a few of their fellow competitors.
“I just haven't been used to that, and it was surprising. I haven't encountered that kind of blatant sexism since the 1970s,” Reimer says.
Tofte was upset with herself for letting it affect her in the first place. They both met wonderful people on the trip as well, and don't want their legacies as team members to be defined by the incidents.
“The women took some abuse, but it's all about results,” Ponsford says. “While some were talking, we let our products do the talking. Looking at the standings, we kicked their butts.”
“I'm very competitive, but it isn't always just about the day of the competition,” Ponsford says. “When you look at the big picture, it may have been best for us not to be in the top three for a change, it keeps the competition healthy and vital. In the natural order of things, you have to be excited for teams like Taiwan and Italy.”
Considering all of the travel, exposure and education the team experienced leading up to the Coupe, in terms of the mission of the Guild, this has been the most successful team yet, Ponsford says. Past team cycles focused on the individual team members, but this year's team opened the floodgates and encouraged BBGA members to get involved. With the public regional events, nationwide practices and Camp Bread as a focal point, more bakers are getting excited about it.
“The Guild has a certain mission for the team, involving spreading goodwill, learning as much as possible during competition, and sharing information,” Yuen says. “Of course it's nice to win, but it's also an educational exhibition.”
Ponsford also smells opportunity in the introduction of LeSaffre Cup competitions, expected in 2010 or 2011. These events will serve as regional qualifiers for the Coupe. Sites haven't been determined, but Ponsford is already lobbying to host a North American event in the United States.
“They will expose us to a new group of people, products and ideas, and that can only be a good thing,” Ponsford says.
After the awards were distributed and the fanfare settled down, the team began to decompress. “We had a brief exchange after the Coupe and decided to go home and get our lives back,” Reimer says. “I was actually more tired and sore than I expected to be. We all needed time to recover.”
“It's like something that's unfinished,” Yuen says. “You have your mind set on the competition for three years, and you plan to devote that much time. Now it's over; I don't feel quite finished.” Yuen intends to continue international competition at the highest level, either as a team member or as an individual competitor.
Once was enough for Tofte. “It's been a lifetime experience for me and I did everything I could do,” she says. “I'm not feeling like I need to prove anything to anyone.” She admits her husband remains unconvinced of her intention to ride off into the sunset.
Now that the French have ended the 12-year drought at the top of the Coupe leader board, it's a good time to expand the competition to more of a universal event instead of a singularly French event, Ponsford says. He suggests a good step would be the formation of an international committee to determine where and how the Coupe will grow.
Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie
|4th||United States||578.31 Points|
|5th||The Netherlands||551.89 Points|