Over 350 people showed up on Thursday at the Sofitel Beverly Hills, for the grand finale of French Morning’s Best Baguette Los Angeles.
The air was thick with anticipation (and the heady aroma of freshly baked bread) as bakers, participants and judges came together in the spirit of friendly, French competition. Eight anxious finalists offered samples of baguette and specialty breads to a jury of professional culinary peers. The charming hostess for the evening was French radio host and TV presenter Val Kahl.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen a competition like this since arriving in the US 11 years ago. It allows us to share French culture.” quoted Stéphane Tréand, a French Angeleno and Best Baguette juror. Ticket-holding members of the public also cast their votes on the web in real time, after sampling each bread accompanied by charcuterie and fromage.
Happily, the vote for “Best Baguette Los Angeles” was unanimous. The grand prize winner Bouchon Bakery is helmed by Thomas Keller, proprietor of French Laundry in the Napa Valley and Per Se in New York. Bouchon was lauded for achieving near perfection in it’s light and crispy classic baguette. “It was on a different level,” effused Tréand.
Th ethereal freshness of the Bouchon baguette came at a heay price for the Head Baker, François Hiegel. He was spotted pacing, palpably stressed before the jury’s announcement: “We played it close,” he confessed. “The baguettes came out of the oven only 30 minutes before we arrived”.
In Beverly Hills, where customers factor two-hour round-trip drives through LA traffic into their daily bread run, timing is everything. Each loaf requires 24 hours of leavening and at least one night in the fridge to rest. “It takes a lot of time and constant attention”, explained Hiegel.
The prize for “Specialty Bread” was claimed by Bread Lounge, another LA stalwart. Jurors sampled breads stuffed with cheese, nuts, and dried fruit, or red wine and gooseberries. Head Chef Ran Zimon, charmed the public with delicious morsels, and surprising stories about how each recipe came to be. A proud Angeleno, Zimon graciously acknowledged his world-class competitors: “Every body is a winner tonight!”
Third prize of “People’s Favorite” was scooped up by charismatic underdog Larder Baking Company. On hearing their name announced, the team exploded with joy. A boost of ecstatic energy cut through the sleepy, well-fed crowd as Venezuelan Head Baker Nathan Dakdouk rose to accept victory: “I loved talking to everyone. It was an amazing feeling to be among such skill and passion.” Though small, the future looks bright for Larder Baking Company: “We plan to grow our production line – but slowly, to conserve quality.”
Informed French Morning readers who cast their votes before Thursday’s event bestowed the esteemed “Reader Prize” on Pitchoun Bakery: “We are very flattered to be counted among the finalists and winners. For us, it’s a great victory, especially since we are the only 100% French bakery in town”. Proprietor Bakers Fabienne and Frédéric Soulies particularly enjoyed being among a Francophile crowd, after having adapted their bread to American clientele: “Less crust, more white.”
The jurors, all experienced chefs themselves, admitted that the high level of quality made for difficult decisions. For juror Christophe Bonnegrace, head chef at Yamashiro, it came down to gut instinct: “For me, the best baguette reminds me of my grandmother’s cooking.” Similar to Proust’s madeleine, the baguette has become a symbol, and a subject of detailed study for French and Francophile bread lovers. Jury president Thomas Henzi, Pastry Chef of the Beverly Hilton Hotel, boiled it down: “What counted most was the marriage of flavor and structure. Some breads look good but lack flavor, and vice versa.”
But at the end of the day, everyone was a winner.
“The most important thing is that we’re here together tonight, with good bread, wine and cheese. It’s an embarrassment of riches we have here in Los Angeles.”