PARIS – It was 10 a.m. on a Saturday, and Kathryn Goodpaster had been baking for five hours. Her croissants were cooling, a dozen paper-thin layers rolling back on themselves into a swirling vortex of golden dough. Two judges, several cellphones and a TV camera were fixed on her as she piped X’s atop proofed and puffy hot cross buns, a final flourish before they would enter the oven’s inferno. There were three hours to go. Sweat gathered above her eyebrows, but her gloved hands never once trembled.
Goodpaster, of Rosemount, was baking in a makeshift kitchen in a Parisian expo center for the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie, aka the Bakery World Cup. She was competing as one of three members of Team USA in the most prestigious world tournament mostly unheard of in America.
“The closest equivalent we have in the U.S. that we can weight it to is the Olympics,” said John Kraus, owner of Rose Street Patisserie and Patisserie 46 in the Twin Cities, where Goodpaster is pastry chef and head of distribution.
“It’s on a world scale, and the rest of the world, they do know what this means.” Kraus said
Founded in 1992, the international convening calls on its participants to demonstrate professional rigor, razor-sharp precision, astounding creativity and physical stamina in a sport of the senses. Twelve teams from around the globe come together in Paris every two years to test their baking skills in side-by-side kitchens before an audience of fervent fans. Like the Summer and Winter Olympics, there are two divisions of the contest held every four years, alternating — pâtisserie, or pastry, and boulangerie, or bread.
The 2020 installment was a boulangerie competition, dedicated to all things risen: baguettes and brioche, puff pastry and pain de mie. The teams’ three members were each responsible for their own area of expertise: breads of the world; viennoiserie (croissants and such, Goodpaster’s specialty); and “artistic bread creation,” a 5-foot-tall edible sculpture inspired by their nation’s music. Some of the menu items and ingredients were kept secret until the night before the competition.
Bakers had eight hours to pull the whole thing off, a feat that required a solid year of training.
Twice a week, Goodpaster would start her workday early and end late to get a few extra turns at the laminating machine in the Bread Lab at Rose Street Cafe in St. Paul. She’d spend hours practicing a single skill: the uniformity of the brioche, the shape of the croissants, the weight of toppings on the sandwiches.
“The correlations to a marathon are very real,” she said. “Focusing on one task at a time, one aspect of conditioning, versus running the entire race every day.”
On holidays, when the kitchen was quiet, she’d be there for an eight-hour run-through of the competition’s full menu.
All while doing her day job.
Practices with her teammates, Jerod Pfeffer and Nicolas Zimmermann, were held in a kitchen at a flour mill in Petaluma, Calif. Coach Nicky Giusto would surprise the team with a grab bag of ingredients to prepare for the unpredictability of the competition. One time, Goodpaster drew Spam.
At home, she was fortunate to have a secret weapon. Kraus competed in the pastry Coupe in 2015, the year Team USA placed third. He knew well the stresses of the competition; on an ice cream cake challenge, his freezer wasn’t working.
Goodpaster is only the third baker from the Twin Cities to make it to the Coupe. She had to demonstrate her baking skills and write essays for the Bread Bakers Guild of America, which selects and supports Team USA.
Solveig Tofte, of Minneapolis’ Sun Street Breads, competed in the Coupe in 2008. Now, she’s the chair of the board of the Guild. Having another Twin Cities baker make it onto the team proves “we have some of the best bakers in the world,” Tofte said.
Back at the Coupe, nothing could rev up an audience better than a chorus of vuvuzelas and the smashing of red-and-blue inflatable tubes. Cheers echoed throughout the cavernous building, where a trade show for commercial ovens and bakeshop counters was underway. “Go U.S.A.!” a group chanted on one side, while French fans blared their horns.
It was Day 1 of the competition, and Taiwan and the Ivory Coast were baking alongside the U.S. and France.
Goodpaster seemed not to notice any of the commotion. She was busy assembling a buffet of finger foods that would surround Team USA’s showpiece, a bread-based tower of musical instruments meant to represent American jazz. She squirted precise globs of mayonnaise onto mini-hamburgers, weighing each one to be sure they were identical.
“Come on, you guys need to push,” Giusto, the coach, urged his team. “Push harder!” Held back by stanchions, the crowd leaned in toward the kitchen for the final countdown.
“Trois, deux, un.” Giusto raised his hands in the air, and all three bakers looked out at the crowd. It was possibly the first time in eight hours that Goodpaster’s head wasn’t bowed toward the kitchen counter.
An international panel of judges walked past piles of baked goods, poking, prodding, sniffing, tasting and taking notes.
Goodpaster picked up a broom and started cleaning.
With the popularity of cooking shows like “Top Chef,” it’s a wonder why the Bakery World Cup remains largely unknown in the U.S. The competition has the time pressure of “Chopped,” the fanfare of “Iron Chef,” the extravagant showpieces of “Great British Bake-Off” and the reverence of “The French Chef.” TV news in France covers the four-day event religiously.
It even has international intrigue. The Japanese team allegedly sent a “spy” to the Minneapolis and St. Paul bakeries where Goodpaster works.
“He came in and bought a chocolate croissant and he left 15 minutes later,” Kraus said.
Kraus has thoughts about why this global baking battle hasn’t found a widespread American audience.
“I think for the French in particular, this is a culture that sends their 5-year-old to get a baguette twice a day, or they have a croissant every morning, and they don’t need a reason to have a piece of cake at night. It’s a part of their culture, where it’s not a part of ours,” he said. “We’re very happy getting a loaf of bread at the grocery store.”
Tofte thinks it’s more of a practical matter as to why bread bakers don’t command the spotlight in the U.S., while other kinds of chefs rule cable television.
“The problem with baking is it takes a long time,” she said. “You can’t bake in one hour, except cookies.”
It’s also a personality thing. The kinds of people drawn to the early morning work of bread-making aren’t necessarily the best candidates for reality TV. “We’re not dramatic people,” Tofte said. “We’re too nice to each other in the kitchen.”
Soft-spoken and strong-willed, Goodpaster, 32, began baking as a child with her mom, Harriet, in St. Paul. Her competitive spirit was apparent then, too, as a rider of horses; she competed nationally in high school.
She went to Gustavus Adolphus College to study philosophy, and was considering graduate school when a job in a coffee shop persuaded her to learn to make pastries instead.
“She told me, ‘I want my mind to be connected to my fingertips,’ which is what she’s doing right now,” said her father, Ken, who sat on a riser in the audience at the Coupe, holding a scarf crocheted with the words “Go Katie.”
Goodpaster went off to the French Pastry School in Chicago, where she met Kraus, who was assembling his Coupe team with two Chicago pastry chefs. She knew then that she wanted to be in his shoes one day.
She understood the pressure of the competition, and wanted to do it anyway, something Kraus chuckled at. Why put oneself through it? “No idea,” he laughed. Goodpaster sounded star-struck as she spoke about her reasons. “I just think it’s a really amazing thing to be against bakers on an international stage, where there’s a lot of innovation happening all around. That’s where progress comes from a lot of times,” she said.
Since training began, she felt a deeper connection to bakers at home, too. “All the best bakers in the country want us [Team USA] to be the best,” she said. “It’s intimidating, it’s exciting, it’s everything. I want to make them proud.”
Steely in defeat
Three days after Team USA’s baking marathon, the teams gathered at the expo center for the awards ceremony.
A fast-talking French announcer introduced all 12 teams to a crowd hungry for results. He had spoken little English throughout the Coupe, but in welcoming the Americans, he translated: “Ladies and gentlemen, all the way, on their horses, with their guns, United States of America!”
The chefs, in their white jackets and toques, lined up behind the podium.
In third place, Denmark. In second, Japan. And the winner of the 10th edition of the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie: China.
Goodpaster locked eyes with her mom in the crowd and mouthed, “I’m fine,” Harriet said afterward.
Kraus knew what this moment was like for his protégée. “We can feel Kate,” he said. “How she feels right now.” He put his hand on his heart, then wiped away tears.
As the crowd dispersed, Goodpaster was steely, though her eyes watered. “I’m OK,” she said. “Of course we wish we could have been up there.”
She started to say something about how she’d take home skills she learned from this once-in-a-lifetime experience competing against the best bakers in the world. But the words wouldn’t come out.
“Let me translate that for her,” Kraus interjected. “It’ll change everything.”