Down in the basement of the Central Building at NAIT, Alan Dumonceaux stands in the institution’s bakery, scoring a batch of sourdough baguettes before sliding them into the hulking industrial ovens. The radiating heat would make things uncomfortable for the uninitiated, but, after 30 years in bakeries and 13 years as chair of NAIT’s baking program, Dumonceaux is unfazed. He chats away while keeping a close eye on the bread as it rises and turns a golden brown.
Dumonceaux will have to withstand a totally different kind of heat when he leads a team of bakers – the majority of which are based in Edmonton and have ties to NAIT – into the Bakery World Cup, taking place Feb. 5 to 9, 2016, in Paris as part of the EuroPain exhibition and trade show.
“It’s a great honour to be representing your country. Think of the World Cup of soccer – this is the World Cup of baking. There’s no bigger event for Canadian bakers to be participating in,” he says.
His excitement is, understandably, palpable. The team qualified for France by placing first at the Louis Lesaffre Cup this past June, a competition featuring bakers from North, Central and South America that was held in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This is the fourth time a Canadian team has attempted to qualify for the Bakery World Cup, but the first time it has succeeded.
The team members with ties to NAIT include Dumonceaux, baking instructors Clayton Folkers and James Holehouse, and graduate Elien de Herdt.
At both the Louis Lesaffre Cup and the World Cup, each team competes in three categories: Baguette and world breads; Viennese pastry and gastronomic bread-making; and artistic showpieces. As Dumonceaux serves as team manager, he also handles the pastries for Team Canada, while Holehouse takes care of the showpiece. Folkers – a Culinary Olympics champion with Team Canada in 1992 and the first-ever Canadian born pastry judge at that same competition – is a technical advisor to the team.
Other bakers on the team include coach Mario Fortin from Quebec and Ontario’s Marcus Mariathas, who handles the baguettes and world breads.
Each team at both competitions must also include a “young bakery hopeful,” which is where de Herdt, 20, fits in. At the Louis Lesaffre Cup, the young bakers had to put together a children’s birthday tea, which was judged on quality and “vision of the bakery profession;” de Herdt took first place in that challenge.
“It’s pretty exciting – overwhelming almost, and nerve-racking, but exciting,” she says of the prospect of competing in France. “I’ve learned so much from [the other team members] , and eventually, hopefully I’ll be part of the team. I’ve learned so much just by watching them practice.”
Meanwhile, Holehouse has the ability to flex his creative muscles with the showpiece. Teams are given a different theme at each competition; in Argentina, they were to recreate historic moments from their respective countries.
Holehouse chose to honour Samuel de Champlain’s voyage to North America in 1608, during which he founded New France. He spent about six months planning the showpiece, which depicted de Champlain with his compass, an anchor, a naval ship, a ship’s wheel and a globe using just bread, along with some sugar to glue it all together. “I like to tell a story,” he says.
Holehouse has competed before in international pastry competitions, making similar showpieces out of chocolate and sugar, which are more precise mediums than bread.
“The shapes contract; they warp in the oven. I’m used to things fitting like a puzzle and being very precise. [With bread] , you have to go with the flow and just make things work sometimes.”
Each team member is putting in plenty of hours preparing individually, but they all get together at least once a month to practice as a team. At the World Cup, each team has a couple of hours to prepare on the first day, and then eight hours to bake and assemble on the second day. The Canadians, though, have also booked three days of practice time at a bakery in France prior to the competition to adjust to European ingredients.
” [In Argentina,] their flours were really different than Canadian flours. That was a really big challenge for me; I had to make big adjustments in my doughs,” Dumonceaux says. “Their butter was really different, so I had to figure out how to use their butter. And the challenge was, that was the first time I’d ever used it, in the competition. We tried to find a bakery there to practice in before, but we didn’t have any luck.”
Adding to the stress is the fact that, normally, teams know the scopes and themes for a competition eight months ahead of time; for the World Cup, they only got three-and-a-half months’ notice.
The team consoles itself, though, with the knowledge that all the other teams are in the same boat. Folkers expect the competition in France to be stiff from not only the host nation, but also from the top three finishers at the last World Cup: Japan, the United States and Taiwan.
“But, for me, I don’t worry too much about that stuff,” Folkers says. “It’s really what happens on that day. As long as you follow your plan and execute it, as long as you can say, ‘We’ve done the best we can do at this point,’ that’s awesome.”
He adds that other teams won’t know what to expect from the Canadians because we, as a country, don’t have a track record in the World Cup. “It’ll be the first time we’ve been there. That’s great, because I like being in the underdog position.”
No matter where Team Canada finishes, though, just qualifying for the World Cup is a big win for NAIT and its culinary programs, giving the school a chance to show what its people can do on a global stage.
“It’s validation for all the hard work that you do,” Dumonceaux says. “You practice, practice, practice; you work really hard and put in lots of your own time. And the reward is that you’re successful. To me, that makes it worthwhile.”
OK, be honest, have you taken your Christmas decorations down, yet?