Alan Dumonceaux has made thousands of croissants over his 30-year career. But the chair of the baking program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) is leaving nothing to chance as he prepares daily for next February's Masters de la Boulangerie in France – where he will be one of just 18 bakers at one of the world's top competitions.
How do you get selected for an elite baking competition like this?
It's a bit of a journey. It's a three-part process. You first get selected to represent Canada on the national baking team, and then you train, and go to the Louis Lesaffre Cup. We were successful – we won there. Then we go to the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie, or the world cup of baking. And then you compete there. And during those two competitions, the judges, the organizers, are evaluating your product and how you work. And based on those two competitions, they selected who they think are the top individual candidates – or candidates that show the most promise – who then compete in the Masters de la Boulangerie.
How do you prepare for this competition?
You have to have a plan. I meet with my coaches. Then we just start to have a plan and brainstorm and come up with ideas. You try some ideas and if you're successful, you continue on in that vein. And if you determine it's not going to work, then you retool and try something different. You always want to ensure that your focus is on where the most points are in the judging, as well. So it's just trial and error – and you make some ugly ducklings – and you just keep improving them and making them better and better, until you get to the point where you're satisfied. Then you actually put them into the time trial. You have to time yourself for your speed – and figure out what you can do to speed up the process. Or, if I was fast enough, now I have time to do additional finishings. Once you get to where you're solid, and you know exactly what you're going to do, you just keep repeating it.
Over years of baking, you have developed an allergy to flour, common among bakers, and have even resorted to wearing a respirator during practices. How difficult has it been to adapt to this?
It's not difficult; it's uncomfortable. It's a necessity … because I don't want to damage my lungs anymore. It's really an occupational allergy. So if I am not exposed to flour dust, then my lungs are fine. If I am not diligent in wearing a mask, then all of a sudden my chest is tight and then I'm starting to use an inhaler. And your breathing becomes a little bit uncomfortable. About four years ago, Alberta Occupational Health and Safety started to investigate flour-dust exposure in Alberta. It's no different than miners getting coal lung, or farmers getting grain lung from the dust of the grain. Any exposure to airborne particles over an extended period of time does have a negative impact. Our lungs are supposed to breathe clean air.
Can you give any hints for what you are thinking in regards to one aspect of the competition, a pastry that represents Canada? And what exactly is a typical Canadian pastry, in your mind?
We're at the experimental stage right now. When we think about a pastry that represents Canada, we really look at ingredients. What ingredients represent Canada? The obvious ones are Maple syrup, Oka cheese out of Quebec and fresh salmon out of B.C. You've got lobster on the East Coast. We've got lots of fresh berries and fruit. We have lots of root vegetables. There's also sweet, or savoury? Because it's nice to have a savoury pastry as well. You first think: So what ingredient would be interesting? And then, how can I create something from these ingredients? They say it's something typical from your country but the biggest points are for creativity. So you're really creating a new pastry from your country – it's not a typical pastry from your country. You have to do something that's going to impress the judges. And you still have think, "What would the average person enjoy?" If it's too unique and too specific – only three out of 10 people are really going to appreciate that – then you're not doing yourself any favours. In the final product, the average person has to say "Wow." If they say, "Well, that's interesting," then you have not been successful.
Croissants, pains au chocolat, brioches or something else – what is the single most challenging pastry to make?
I think the brioche à tête is the most challenging. You have two challenges – No. 1, to get a really light, tender product. And then No. 2, is to keep the tête – the head – centred on top of the brioche as it rises. But from the Louis Lesaffre Cup my first time in 2010 to the Louis Lesaffre Cup in 2015, my brioche is tenfold better – because one of my coaches took a course and learned a critical thing about eggs. Brioche is something that's really high in butter and has a high egg content, and people add additional egg yolks because they want to make it richer. But my coach was at an advanced ice-cream making class at the University of Guelph. And in the world of ice-cream making, if they need to dry an ice cream, they add additional egg yolk. And it was one of the light-bulb moments – because we would make this beautiful brioche and two hours later you would taste it and it's dry. We were adding extra egg yolks for richness, but in fact we were actually making our product poorer – it became drier to eat. Another important point we haven't touched on is the mental strain that comes with competing. It is lots of sleepless nights. It's waking up at two in the morning and not being able to go back to sleep because you're thinking of a process or a step, or you're thinking of an idea, and you have to get up and write it down.
This interview has been edited and condensed.