After 20-plus years of dreaming about competing in the Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie, John Kraus got his wish. The owner of Patisserie 46 in Minneapolis teamed up with Chicago pastry chefs Scott Green and Josh Johnson. In January, after a year of intensive training, the three longtime buddies headed to Lyon, France, going whisk-to-whisk with 20 other teams from around the globe in what is widely considered to be the pastry Olympics.
Kraus & Co. came home with the bronze medal, a huge accomplishment. On a recent morning over coffee in the dining room of his sun-streaked south Minneapolis bakery, Kraus discussed the virtues of combining chocolate with orange, the challenge of baking in front of thousands of unruly spectators and the joys of altering the perception of the “ugly American.”
Q: Can you share some details regarding your practice schedule?
A: I went to Chicago — with my assistant, Joshua Werner, he’s the chocolatier here — every two weeks for four to five days, for all of 2014. On the first day, you’d unpack and get organized. On the second day, you’d set up your station, and on day three you’d do a 10-hour time trial. Then you’d pack up.
Q: Your primary responsibility on the team was building a chocolate cake and an ice cream cake. What were the time trials like?
A: I’d get up around 4:30 a.m. I’d drink my one cup of coffee, we’d all have a bottle of water, and eggs, and toast, to mimic exactly what we’d eat before we’d start the competition. Then we’d stare at the clock, because you’re not allowed to enter the kitchen until 6:30. So then bam, we’d start. For 10 hours, you don’t stop. Not once. In France, I remember I asked a judge, “Where is the restroom?” And he said, “Only bad guys go the restroom.”
Q: Are the teams required to prepare specific types of pastries?
A: It’s always a chocolate cake, using Valrhona ingredients, and an ice cream cake, using Ravifruit purées. Then it’s a plated dessert, an ice sculpture, a chocolate sculpture and a sugar sculpture.
Q: How did you develop the recipe for the chocolate cake?
A: In our first official meeting — it was in November 2013 — I took the cake that I make here. It was delicious, very simple, very clean. And we started thinking along the lines of, we need more texture, we need more this, we need more that. I took a cake to France so that a friend could help me with it, and we basically went back to the original cake. Part of the issue with chocolate cake is that it always feels heavy and rich. So we made a cake that was super-light, but still had the strength of chocolate.
Q: Can you describe it?
A: Going from the bottom to the top, it’s a pecan crumble that’s enrobed in chocolate, then a chocolate ganache, then a pecan-chocolate sponge cake, then a chocolate Chantilly, then chocolate mousse, then a layer of tangerine marmalade, then more chocolate mousse, then a custard-based chocolate ganache that’s very creamy and satiny and smooth. If unctuous is a word, that’s what it is. The tangerine was just acidic and fresh enough that it brightens up the chocolate, so that when you ate it you found yourself wanting to eat more. It was dynamite, like an old-fashioned cake.
Q: Why citrus and chocolate?
A: I was torn, because at first I wanted to do raspberry, but I started thinking: It’s January, and we wanted something that tastes good in January in the United States. You can have pineapples and bananas whenever you want, but you really can’t have good raspberries or strawberries in January. That’s why we stuck with citrus. The U.S. has tremendous citrus, and January happens to be when tangerines are in season.
Q: Will Patisserie 46 customers get a crack at a version of the chocolate cake?
A: I think so. The problem is, the chocolate-orange combination has traditionally not fared well here. That’s not unusual. A friend of mine owns a chocolate factory in Florida, and he said that he could do 15 versions of chocolate and raspberry, and no one would complain. I think orange has so much more nuance. But it’s a hard sell.
Q: Can you describe the actual competition?
A: We shipped 3,000 pounds of equipment in five crates ahead of us, along with a thousand dollars worth of coolers and luggage on the plane.
A bell goes off at 6:30 [a.m.], and there’s this eerie silence. Everyone just starts working. All you hear are whisks hitting bowls, torches starting, timers going off. Those first four hours are almost like you’re in a yoga class, it’s almost totally silent. Nobody stops. Everyone’s heads are down. And I’m working in a space that’s about 2 feet wide. So by the time the spectators show up at 10:30, you’re well on your way.
Q: It takes place in the same big hall that hosts the Bocuse d’Or?
A: The Bocuse d’Or competitors loaded their booths in on the night that we moved out. The crowd is somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 people. The Italians had 200-something people, and they were blowing these giant horns. It’s all you could hear. When the commentators would say, “Let’s hear it for the Italians,” they would all go crazy. And then when they’d say, “Let’s hear it for the Americans,” you’d hear this [a polite clap]. That really brings you down to earth.
Q: How did the day go?
A: The chocolate cake went off without a hitch, and I immediately started getting the ice cream cake ready. That was my biggest nightmare of the day. The blast chiller, which had never been below minus 20, suddenly went to minus 49. Oops. That set us back, the cake was just too cold.
But it’s all so subjective. Ours was cassis, banana and passion fruit, but maybe the Malaysian judge doesn’t like cassis, you know what I mean? It was stressful, but by the end we were having such a blast. It really was the greatest.
Q: How are the winners announced?
A: The competition ends at 4:30 [p.m.], and you have to have everything on your table. You get an hour to clean your kitchen, and about two hours later they have the results. They start to hand out the awards, and it goes on, and on. It comes to the bronze, and they said, “États-Unis” [United States]. I wouldn’t say that I was upset, but I felt disappointed. But you’re not rational at that point. You’re thinking, “Damn, we should have had the silver.”
Then they called the Japanese, they got the silver, and they were tremendously upset. One guy was crying because they didn’t get the gold. And then it dawned on me: You know what? This is great! Who cares! We’re up here! Then they called the Italians for the gold, and the room just exploded, and those guys had so much elation.
Q: Were there any surprises?
A: There was this weird idea that the Americans are going to be problematic. You know: mean, nasty, jerky or loud. And what they got representing the United States were three flannel-wearing guys in jeans. I mean, we’re nice. The Swedish captain came up to me one night and said, in his super-thick accent, “I can’t believe how nice you guys are.” That was really pretty funny.