In 1961, there was no bread in New York City. At least not according to chef André Soltner, who that year came to the U.S. to open Lutèce, a beacon of French cuisine on Manhattan's east side for more than 40 years until it closed in 2004.
Now Soltner's surrounded by bread.
He's one of seven judges in the inaugural "Best Baguette in New York City" competition, which took place Thursday night in a curtained-off conference room at the Sofitel Hotel in Midtown. Stacks of baguettes of all shades and flour types—buckwheat, white, sourdough—are piled on top of tables. Each of the 15 competing bakeries has created a cornucopia of bread product. Amy's Bread has stamped its name on a dark round loaf of the nonbaguette variant and placed it inside a wicker basket with baguette sticks lined up behind it, like a crown. Another bakery, Maison Kayser, has created an actual wheat arrangement.
The competition was the brainchild of Emmanuel Saint-Martin, the founder of French Morning, a news site for French ex-pats living in New York. Over the past few years, French Morning has reported a new bakery opening at least once a month. "Being French, we talk a lot about food," Saint-Martin says. He wanted to celebrate the city's bread renaissance. The judges will blind-taste baguettes, and there's also a specialty bread category.
More than 200 people are crammed into the space to sample slices from the bakers, who were chosen by readers and are battling it out for bragging rights and not much else. France, which has had a baguette competition since 1994, gives its bread champion 4,000 euros ($4,320) and enough clout to generate a 10-15 percent spike in sales. By comparison, the America competition is amateur: The winner gets a diploma. What can you expect from a city that just got bread?
The most enthusiastic participant is Jesse Nash, the emcee for the night, a self-proclaimed francophile and freelance journalist, who is tan and dressed in head-to-toe black. He holds a microphone in one hand and a full glass of red wine in the other while interviewing the bakers over a din of chewing and French chit-chat. (A majority of the attendees are either French or practicing their foreign language skills.) "What makes your baguette the best?" Nash asks one of the contestants. Nobody is listening to the answer, because people don't come to a bread-off to learn about the intricacies of a loaf. They come to pile meat on top of cheese on top of bread, which they will then shove into their mouths.
"Bread is the new star," Nash later shouts over an unreceptive crowd.
Of all the breads, baguettes are ripe for judgment. "A baguette is the simplest bread in the world to make," says Charlie Van Over, one of the judges and the author of The Best Bread Ever. "But it's by far the hardest to make great."
It takes just four ingredients to make a baguette: flour, water, salt, and yeast. The slender loaves generally come in at 55 centimeters to 65 centimeters long. A good baguette has a crisp, crusty outside and a holey inside; color and smell are important, too. A representative from Bien Cuit, a Brooklyn bakery, describes the difference between two variations of baguettes as if he were a gluten sommelier. The type of flour and fermentation time effects the way the bread tastes, feels, and even smells, he explains. Longer fermentation is better but harder to control. An older American couple lifts a slice to their noses. They can smell the difference, they say, before ripping the pieces apart with their teeth.
"If you can make a great baguette, you can make any great bread," adds Van Over. After an hour of washing down bread with Veuve Clicquot at a table on a stage up front, the judges have picked the winner. Ariane Daguin, founder of D'Artagnan, announces the best baguette: "By its appearance, by its aroma, by its structure, which is a crustiness, you know, by its flavor is No. 15." Nash translates. The winner is: Eric Kayser.
In celebration, he smacks two baguettes together in the air. "When we break the bread, we say it sings like a bird," he says of his award-winning baguette, which you can find at Maison Kayser and 80-some outlets around the globe. (His loaf was crowned Best of New York in 2013 by the critics of New York magazine as well.) The two runners-up—Amy Scherber of Amy’s Bakery and Jeremy Jan of Breads Bakery—were awarded a special Jury Prize, while Epicerie Boulud was anointed Most Original Bread (Raspberry Sourdough), Orwasher’s Bakery named Best Specialty Bread for their Levain Local, and Clemence Danko of Choc O Pain took a fan award.
Soltner says the decision was difficult: Even the worst baguette was pretty good, which is a big improvement from the dark no-bread days.
"Are they better than baguette in France? Um, no. I wouldn't say so," he says. "If it's as good, it's already not bad, you know?"
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