Not so long ago, in North Stonington, an Olympic gold medal-winner lived among us. Truth be told, it was the equivalent of Olympic gold, but given the world-class competition and unprecedented achievement, few would quibble about the glory or the weight of the honor.
Tom Gumpel settled in the spring of 2005 with his wife and young daughter in North Stonington village. The name is likely familiar: His father, Dr. Roy Gumpel, who lives in Pawcatuck, has been a letter writer and essayist for the local newspapers.
The younger Gumpel, a native of Port Chester, N.Y., came here as something of a celebrity in the world in which the very best are not crowned with a laurel wreath but a white hat, a tall and willowy one at that.
In 1999, Gumpel, then at the Culinary Institute of America campus in St. Helena, Calif., captained a United States Baking Team that wrested the World Cup of Baking — the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie — from perennial champion France, and rolling over 11 other countries along the way.
“This is like winning the Olympics,” Gumpel was quoted in stories about the upstart American victory. “We’re humbled and thrilled at the same time.” The three-member team, sponsored by the Bread Bakers Guild of America in association with the Retailer’s Bakery Association, proved superior in artisan baking in competitions in Paris against Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, Luxembourg, Chile, Hungary, Mexico, Portugal, Slovakia, and Spain, in addition to France.
The competition, held every three years, gave the American team eight hours to bake all the required breads in its assigned categories — artistic design, baguette and specialty breads and Viennoiserie (sweet breads and pastry). Once the breads were taken from the oven, each baker’s work was closely critiqued. Weight, density, appearance, taste, execution and originality all factored into the judges’ final decision.
In announcing the U.S. victory, the Bread Bakers Guild said: “Team Captain Thomas Gumpel’s category of artistic design blends artisan baking skills with the artistry and technique of sculpture.” Making the team came as a surprise to Gumpel, as he entered the qualifying competitions only to see where he ranked among his peers.
Training for the regional competitions included working with both artists and architects to help create his design for the competition. The rules required that all portions of the design, or sculpture, had to be edible, including the pastry paste that served as the glue to hold the concoction together.
The theme of the contest was “Bread in the 21st Century,” and the U.S. entry depicted the history of bread baking, from millstones to more modern production components.
Other team members were Robert Jorin, also of the Culinary Institute of America, who competed in Viennoiserie, and Jan Schat, of Il Fornaio Restaurant’s Academia del Fornaio, then in Northern California, who competed in baguette and specialty bread.
In the previous World Cup of Baking, in 1996, the Americans came in fifth. Three years before that, the U.S. finished sixth.
By the time Gumpel moved to North Stonington, he had been dean of baking and pastry arts at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., where he was also a certified master baker, and more recently had joined Panera Bread as director of bakery development. He was attached to the St. Louis-based Panera’s regional office in Needham, Mass.
Today, Gumpel, in his 13th year with Panera, lives in Sarasota, Fla. His title is vice president of product development, known informally as head baker, and he also concentrates on freshening the menu and culinary innovation.
Bread, he said the other day from his home, is going the way of other staples, such as coffee and, well, beer — young people starting up shops producing artisan breads. In Mystic, for example, there is Sift and the Lighthouse Bakery; in Westerly, Vesta Bakery; and at the Stonington Farmers Market each Saturday, Two Dogs and its reliable array of breads.
“At the same time,“ Gumpel said, “one of the challenges is the appearance of high-quality breads in supermarkets, meaning less driving and lower costs. It’s all great for bread in general, but there are challenges. Mostly, you’re seeing better quality ingredients.”
Take it from one who knows, a gold medal-winner.
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist for The Day in New London. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org