On Thursday, February 16th, bread-lovers united at the Hotel Sofitel Chicago Magnificent Mile for the grand finale of the Best Baguette Chicago 2017 competition, organized by French Morning and Frenchly. More than 250 people attended to taste-test the baguettes–topped with fromage and charcuterie, of course–and crown the best of them all.
Jean Joho, the well-known Alsatian chef of Chicago (L’Everest), led the panel of judges, including Chef Dominique Tougne (Chez Moi), Chef Greg Biggers (Sofitel), Chef Yves Roubaud (Shaw’s Crab House), Chef Tim Foley (Bits of Swiss, Michigan), Chef Chris Pandel (The Bristol), and food writer Audarshia Townsend. Blindfolded, the judges tasted our elite eight’s baguettes and specialty bread. “On the whole, they were excellent,” Jean Joho proclaimed. “It’s very satisfying to see so many excellent artisans coming to Chicago these past few years!”
All the finalists were enthusiastic and excited and to be competing. “When we first started our bakery here in 2007, there weren’t many places that served good bread,” recalls finalist Vincent Colombet, owner of La Boulangerie. “Since then, a lot of excellent bakeries have opened.” Among the finalists, there were an equal number of French bakers and American bakers, all of whom shared a passion for bread and desire to win the Grand Prix.
By public vote, the American bakery Hewn Bread (in Evanston) was a crowd favorite and took home the Fan Prize. Trained in Seattle before opening her bakery, Hewn’s chef Ellen King was proud to see her bread recognized by the public. “Our flour is organic and bought from local farmers; we make our bread the old-fashioned, traditional way,” she explains. Although she was trained by a French chef, King learned to bake all on her own. “It took us four years to make a baguette perfectly to our taste, and we finally got it!”
Another American chef won the Best Specialty Bread prize, Jordana Downer of Bennison’s (North Shore). A recent graduate of the renowned French Pastry School of Chicago, Downer’s knack for traditional bread making was partially inherited. Her family’s bakery was founded back in 1938, making her the third-generation Downers to run the bread business.
In the end, it was a Frenchman who took home the grand prize. Pierre Zimmerman, owner of La Fournette (Old Town), won the Readers’ Prize and was awarded the Grand Prix by the jury. “This is an invaluable award for me and our team,” Zimmerman expressed appreciatively, despite being an habitual award-winner–he won the award for la Coupe du Monde de Boulangerie back in 1996. “Our team was very excited to be in the competition, and now they’ll be ecstatic, especially as I promised that I’d take them all out to a restaurant if we won!” With 50 employees at La Fournette, the celebratory dinner will certainly feel as lavish as a banquet.
Within five years, Zimmerman’s small family business has grown substantially. “That’s been the goal ever since we left Alsace, where our bakery was doing very well with just 15 employees,” says Zimmerman. “We wanted to have an adventure, challenge ourselves, and succeed in the country famous for entrepreneurs.” Since their opening, Zimmerman and his wife, Michelle, have really tapped into the American taste for artisanal products, as well as “the size of a buyer market that obviously didn’t exist in our village of 400 people.” La Fournette makes 75% of its revenue by selling to restaurants, supermarkets (like Whole Foods or Treasure Island), and other dealers. But that kind of success hasn’t made the shop feel any less home-grown: “Our shop is still really important to us, and our customers are very loyal,” insisted Zimmerman. Now, while hungry Chicagoans wait in line for the favorite baguette, they can admire the new award, attached proudly to the wall of the beloved La Fournette, winner of the Best Baguette of Chicago.
All images are property of French Morning.