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March 08, 1999 12:00 PM

During their final practices for the World Cup of Baking in Paris, the three-man U.S. team began to understand how it must feel to get squeezed, rolled and shoved into a hot oven. “Our bread wasn’t rising,” recalls team captain Thomas Gumpel, who blames the quirky texture of French flour. “People were getting angry and confused. Things were literally falling apart!”

Oh, but then their dough—and their fortunes—began to expand. And when the big day came on Feb. 16, and the American team’s most artful loaves and pastries were judged against the products of their 11 competitors, the culinary world got its first whiff of a delicious upset: For the first time in the eight-year history of the competition, its host—the very Frenchmen whose forebears had bagged the first baguette and twisted the first croissant—had to settle for second place to the Americans, a team representing the land of Wonder bread and Pop-Tarts.

And this, says Christian Vabret, president of Aurillac’s renowned Ecole Française de Boulangerie—a kind of West Point for bakers—can be traced to one ingredient: “The Americans worked the hardest.”

A fact confirmed by Craig Ponsford, 32, the Sonoma, Calif., baker who served as the team’s coach. “Our standards were obnoxiously high,” he says of the months he spent working with Gumpel, 34, Robert Jörin, 45 (both teachers at California’s Culinary Institute of America), and Sausalito, Calif., restaurant partner Jan Schat, 40, who beat out the 47 other Americans hoping to compete in the World Cup’s eight-hour bakefest before a live audience. “People were stopping us at the airport to take pictures of us with the cup because they had seen it on the news,” says Gumpel.

They may also have seen the squad’s mouthwatering creations, like Schat’s baguettes (a compulsory entry for all teams) or Jörin’s artistic pastries or Gumpel’s elaborate bread diorama illustrating the theme of Bread in the 21st Century. And after the flour settled, the Americans went out for a jubilant champagne toast with 142 friends. “We just rocked and rolled,” Gumpel says of his team’s surprising victory. Knead he say more?

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