"Maybe if I was a Swiss watch maker people would understand it better."
Master pastry chef John Kraus, owner of Patisserie 46, is referring to the processes that go into making his pastries, each one a couple days' worth of labor. By way of illustration he holds up his hands. They're a worker's hands -- big and rough and strengthened by endless hours at the task.
Maybe you've stood at the cases at Patisserie 46 and thought about it: they're nothing more than sugar and butter and flour but under the hand of Kraus and his crew, they become little lemon yellow easter hats with a jaunty mad hatter's chocolate tag tucked in the side; a dome of electric lime; a shiny, lipstick red velveteen finger sandwich.
Anyway, you can't eat Swiss watches. Unless Kraus gets a crack at them. Maybe then.
A few weeks ago, the whole world got to see behind that veil at the Coupe du Monde, the most important pastry competition in the world. It happened in Lyon, at the end of January. Kraus and his longtime associates Josh Johnson and Scott Green made up the bronze-winning team.
You can imagine them as the culinary equivalent of the Jamaican bobsled team: three old pals, only one of them having the luxury of taking time off from already rigorous jobs to train, as many competitors do in order to devote all of their attentions to the grueling practice schedule.
Other odds: The Italians, who won gold, raised around a million dollars (or at least rumor has it). Team U.S. only had about a hundred grand, much of it on their own now-outstanding credit card balances. Also, pastry chefs in the U.S. don't do ice sculptures, one of the required competition pieces. In America, there are pastry chefs, and there are ice sculptors, but the two talents do not usually reside in the same body. The U.S. team learned how to sculpt ice just for this competition, getting ice blocks delivered as often as possible and then going at it with a chainsaw, having never done it before in their lives. They carved a wolf.
This is the first time the U.S. has medaled in a decade.
"It's 14 months of agony all leading up to 10 hours."
For almost a year, Kraus drove to Chicago every two weeks (after full work weeks at the bakery) to practice in five-day increments. At first, it was fun. Then he got nervous. He says his hands would shake during the practice sessions. "I've never been so nervous in my life."
In other parts of the world, especially Europe, a win can be career-changing. Here in the U.S., Kraus says, it barely even means bragging rights. It's a personal feather in his cap. "For like 23 years it's been a dream," just to compete.
In the competition, each team must present 6 pieces within 10 hours against 20 other country teams: a chocolate cake using Valrhona chocolate, an ice cream piece using Ravifruit puree, a plated dessert, a sugar piece, a chocolate piece, and an ice sculpture. And by these, we mean life-size sculptures that must make it to the judging table intact. If they topple, they topple, and you cry.
That's the way the cookie crumbles, as that old French proverb goes.
But theirs didn't! And they won the bronze! Against the odds!
These competitions can seem a little esoteric to the average American. We don't have the sorts of culinary traditions that they do in Europe, AOCs and MOFs, culinary classifications and designations bestowed by the government that can actually get you thrown into jail (or at least heftily fined) if you attempt to thwart them.
And so, it will take talents like Kraus and Johnson and Green to continuously put their necks on the line, not necessarily for what it means for themselves, but to rep our country as one that can contend with the big boys and girls of the culinary universe, ultimately leading to the elevation of our own food culture.
When I ask how he managed to get through that year of work and driving and rehearsal and attending to his 6- and 11-year-old kids who he still found time to take fishing on Mille Lacs on a regular basis -- how he didn't get burned out -- he just shook his head and looked at me decidedly and pointedly.
"Not a chance."
He says he learned that from the finest pastry chefs in the world, Meilleur Ouvriers de France, or MOFs, his judges, who receive bestowals from the presidency for their superior craftsmanship.
Kraus says they tend to carry with them an air not of arrogance, but capability.
"They're like: 'I got this.' I learned a lot from them about that."
What else did he learn? How to eat a lot of cake. It took 50 rehearsal cakes to nail it. And what became of those?
"We ate the shit out of it! You know it's right when you can eat a piece, and then a second, and maybe even a third."
No, they did not get tired of the cake.
Initially, Kraus and his team said that this would be it -- competing is a once-in-a-lifetime deal.
"But the Japanese (silver medalists) were crying because they didn't win gold. And when you win bronze, you want silver. Or gold."
The next competition will be held in 2017. But, lucky people of Minneapolis, you needn't wait a single day for some of the finest pastries in the world; they're waiting beneath the glass for you to seize upon like the treasures they are, in little old south Minneapolis.
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