09/29/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Chicagoan Takes on Pastry Olympics

Most weekdays Dimitri Fayard arrives by 7 am at Vanille, his small French pastry shop in Lincoln Park. By 8:30 am, when his delivery truck leaves, he has to have tea pastries for the Drake Hotel ready to go. And by 10 am, when Fayard finishes filling his display cases, he and his staff typically have made 300 petit fours, 50 croissants, and 80 individual-sized dessert cakes. On weekends, these numbers more than double, with an occasional wedding cake also thrown in. Fayard rarely leaves before 7 pm.

By any standard, his is a grueling schedule. But add to it training for the year's most prestigious international pastry competition, the bi-annual World Pastry Competition, and you get a sense of this French-born Chicagoan's determination. He hopes to bring home a gold medal for the American team at the two-day event that starts in Nashville on August 31st.

Fayard, who opened Vanille five years ago with his wife Keli, also a pastry chef, is just the latest in a string of Chicago bakers showcasing the city's prominence in international professional baking world. Earlier this year at the World Cup of Bread in Paris, Chicagoan Peter Yuen turned in one of the top scores in the world with his raspberry pistachio brioche - a notable victory that followed on the heels of Bennison Bakery owner Jori Downer, whose team brought home the gold medal in 2005.

At 30, Dimitri Fayard is a relatively new face on the international pastry circuit, but he earned his berth at Nashville working for much of the past decade alongside several of the biggest names in the profession. Before coming to Chicago, Fayard did a stint at New York's classic Payard Patisserie, following his then boss, Jean-Philippe Maury, a newly-minted "Meilleur Ouvrier de France" (Best Pastry Chefs in France or MOF), on to a plum assignment at the Bellagio Hotel just as Las Vegas began attracting culinary super-stars.

In Nashville, Fayard will be teaming up with another former boss, Floridian Laurent Branlard, a member of the 2002 American gold medal team, and French-born Californian Stephane Treand. Like Fayard's former boss Jean-Philippe Maury, Treand is an MOF, awarded the title in 2004 by then French President Jacques Chirac.

No one who has been to Dimitri Fayard's shop, with its strong aroma of butter and variety of glistening mousse-filled cakes, will be surprised to know that of the three-person team, he was assigned responsibility to develop and prepare the elements judged for taste. His teammate Treand specializes in chocolate sculptures and has become a minor pastry legend for his airbrushing, applying colored cocoa butter to chocolate to make sculptures look more realistic. It's a technique Treand refined in the 1980s helping a friend decorate snowboards.

The three Frenchmen representing the United States have spent the past year training for Nashville. For Fayard, this has meant endless rounds of recipe testing, searching for special ingredients, and ordering special equipment. It has also meant monthly trips to Orlando, where he and his teammates converge in a simulated competition environment to sample Fayard's cakes and ice cream, make sure his teammates' sugar and chocolate sculptures will hold up, and most importantly, race the clock in anticipation of the 13-hour limit for the competition.

This year's theme is imagination and all teams have a list of required products delivered at fixed times during the competition. However, like vice-presidential picks, each team's specific styles and recipes will remain shrouded in secrecy until the last minute, lest competitors get an edge. Fayard would only reveal that the American team's dessert cake will contain layers of exotic fruit cream, nougatine, and white chocolate mousse. He plans to glaze it with a caramel infused with exotic fruit.

"It's hard to glaze this shape and we hope the judges will recognize that," Fayard told me, explaining the team's decision to make the cake in the shape of the letter "c." Competitors like Fayard must, as in Olympic skating or gymnastics, balance the dazzle and difficulty factors with reliability in execution. Completing the required elements on time leaves no room for redos.

Competitions like the two-day Nashville event or France's three-day MOF can cost contestants as much as $100,000 for travel, ingredients, and equipment. Although the bulk of these costs are generally covered by sponsors for the World Pastry Competition, many chefs still think the time needed for preparation is too much of a gamble. Fayard has had to staff up just to give himself time to hold up his end of the team's responsibilities.

Among those with retail shops, the common wisdom is that international competition and retail pastry businesses don't mix. Parisian pastry chef Gerard Mulot, sometimes described as pastry chef to the stars, told me once that his name on the shop's awning kept him from attempting the notoriously punishing MOF competition. Not until Arnaud Larher saw a friend with two shops actually earn the MOF, did the celebrated young Parisian pastry chef from Montmartre make up his mind to attempt it himself.

For Fayard, success in international competition is not just personal. "This is a goal I set for myself when I entered the profession, but what I also want is for customers to know that we're not just another upscale pastry shop," he told me. Vanille customers will get a chance to see what this really means when Fayard returns from Nashville. He plans to sell several of the products he and his teammates have developed once he resumes his regular dawn to dusk routine this fall.