The day started early and mellow. By 7 a.m. the team members were here at the bakeshop and ready to go. The official clock began to tick at 7:30 a.m., and the 8-hour day began. The energy was good, and things moved smoothly and swiftly. Bread doughs were mixed, fillings made, decorative pieces cut out, brioche and croissant doughs laminated with their hefty dose of butter. Ciril and I walked the room, observing Solveig, Dara, and Peter as they moved into the early part of their routines. Some questions here, some suggestions there, but for the most part, Ciril and I had decided that we would allow the team to do their work with a minimum of input from us–show us what you can do. Tomorrow will be a different energy, and we plan to be more involved with our questions and commentary.As the day has progressed, the room has warmed up, and the intensity on the faces of the competitors has become more pronounced. Teamwork and overall interaction among the three has been good. Dara had a bit of a problem with one aspect of her decorative piece, but was able to exhale slowly, regroup internally, and overcome. This is good, as mishaps are virtually guaranteed in Paris, and the ability to think fast and make instant adjustments is crucial. Peter has been working with a beautiful array of shapes and fillings. Solveig has pulled four of her five doughs from the oven. Her baguettes and specialty shapes are all that remain. All in all, timings seem good, and timings pretty accurate. Even though Paris is months away, we are conducting these training sessions as if they were the real thing. Six hours have now elapsed since the morning bell rang. Once the 8-hour bell rings, the day will officially be over for the team–except for the cleanup phase, which is mandatory in Paris, as all bakeshops must be spotless at the end of the day so that the next day's countries can start fresh. After the team cleans the bakeshop, Ciril and I will conduct a thorough and minute tasting and product evaluation.

The competitors are like sculptors, starting with an undefined block and over the course of hundred of hours–thousands in reality–refining it to the highest level of excellence they can attain. Whatever they accomplish over these few practice days, it will not be their finest finish work–the refinements of every facet of their work will continue right up to the last days of practice next March.

The day concludes...
Promptly at 3:30, after a non-stop 8 hours of work, everything came to a momentary halt. There is a very palpable energy shift. Peter and Solveig had finished on time (Solveig's last breads came out of the oven over an hour before the finish time, which enabled her to assist Peter with his finish work, and to help Dara as she began assembly of the artistic piece in earnest). Dara needed more time to finish, and as Ciril and I wanted to see her work in its entirety, we gave her the needed time.

It's difficult to convey the feeling of the quite palpable change in energy when a work session ends. The release of tensions, the unleashing of the cumulative anxieties of the day–it's over! And these months of practice sessions are just mini-versions of what can be expected in Paris. I well remember when our day of competition was over. The long exhalation of my teammates and me reverberated clear to the shores of the English Channel.

Ciril and I took Peter's pastries and Solveig's breads into another room to begin our assessments. Yum! How lucky we must be–all those tasty baked goods for us to enjoy! In fact, the process of evaluation is painstaking and strenuous in the extreme. After all, our goal had nothing to do with filling our mouths with sensuous pleasures–what we needed to accomplish was a thorough investigation of every aspect of each product with the goal of offering suggestions that would improve things tomorrow. Each product was minutely dissected from the perspective of taste, balance of ingredients, proportion of crustiness versus creaminess in pastries, visual appeal, subtlety of flavoring components, bread color, complexity of aroma and flavor, the prominence of the grigne (the prized "ears") on the baguettes, originality of techniques, efficiency of production, and on and on and on and on.

Once we finished and wrote our conclusions, we returned to the bakeshop. The next 45 minutes were spent evaluating Dara's decorative piece. Even though her work is not intended to be eaten, the critique of her work must be as extensive and as thorough as for the breads and pastries. We discussed things from the perspective of overall composition, balance of yeasted and non-yeasted doughs, color balance, use of different techniques, and overall visual and even emotional effectiveness of the piece. Now, in the company of the team, our evaluation took the form not just of Ciril and me critiquing, but also the interactive engagement of the team members. Much of their growth (which evolves into skills) comes from the ongoing assessment of the products made by themselves and their teammates.

After our evaluation of Dara's work, the team and coaches returned to the breads and pastries. Another tasting ensued, and after Ciril and I offered our conclusions, the team offered their impressions. Ultimately, Ciril and I made dozens of suggestions aimed at refining the work. It's hard to convey the intensity surrounding the product evaluation phase of the day. One noteworthy aspect is that the formal work session was 8 hours long; the assessment phase took another 3 1/2 hours to complete. By the time it ended, faces were clearly tired and everyone was emptied out and drained. But we were not done yet. Back into the bakeshop we went so the team could spend an hour preparing for the next day's work session. At 8:30 p.m. we finally left, weary, reflecting on the day but already with thoughts of the morrow. As we left the building we discovered that a light sheen of snow had fallen during the day.

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About Jeff Hamelman