Thousands flock every year to enjoy the Fête du Pain near the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.
For the first time ever, the United States has sent a team of bakers to participate in the Fête du Pain, an annual twelve-day bread festival in France that celebrates bread and honors the French patron saint of bakers, St. Honoré. In Paris, the Fête takes place just in front of the Notre-Dame Cathedral. The event runs from May 5 through May 16.

Twenty-four qualified bakers were selected to represent the U.S., including Jory Downer, owner of Bennison’s Bakery and Champion du Monde de la Boulangerie for the Bread Baker's Guild Team USA 2005.

The U.S. has a fully equipped working bakery in full view of the 10,000 people who come through the hall each day. Eight bakers are required each day for the duration of the 12-day event. There are three teams of eight bakers. The second team overlaps for one day with the first team, and the third team will overlap one day with the second team. This means that each baker commits to five full days of baking. 

“Several cities have their own Fête, but the one in Paris, not surprisingly, is the foremost,” explains Jeffrey Hamelman, who organized the American presence at the Fête and is the former bakery director at King Arthur Flour. “There are a number of active working bakeries making products in a temporary building that is erected just in front of Notre Dame Cathedral.”

Throughout the event, more than 200,000 people stroll through the Fête to watch bakers work and to buy their products. This is a great honor for the United States, as foreign bakers are rarely invited to participate.

“There is an incredible Messe des Boulangers, the Bakers' Mass, that takes place inside Notre Dame on one of the Sundays,” Hamelman says. “Bakers are honored with the very front rows reserved for them, and the mass is a veneration of bread. It is incredibly rare that any bakers other than the French are part of this, and it's pretty extraordinary that the U.S. has been invited to send a team of bakers.”

Jarrett Chambers, executive baker at Café Ficelle, the French-style bakery and cafe that opened in Ventura last summer, is the among the American bakers invited to participate. The 24-member team is divided into three groups of eight bakers appearing on specific dates. Chambers' group is assigned to the final leg from May 12-16, placing him on baguette duty. 

"It's a simple bread in that its ingredients are simple: nothing but flour, salt, water and fresh yeast,” Chambers told the Ventura County Star. “But everyone has the same exact ingredients. You're being judged on how well you know how to mix, divide and shape the dough. You're being judged on your skill set as a baker — how well you know the dough."

This year the festival will respond to a theme: Baguettes onto the scene. Bakers will organize outdoor manifestations or offer animations in their shop, such as new baguette recipes.

From May 13 to 15, the village will host the prestigious contest for Best French Tradition Baguette. This involves two steps: the qualifying legs on Sunday, May 13, and Monday, May 14, followed by the competing businesses taking the challenge up when the jury selects the top six.

For the final leg on Tuesday, May 15, the top six from the qualifying legs compete for the title.

Candidates have six hours maximum. Each has to bake on the spot and in front of the audience, completing 40 French tradition baguettes that meet the required specifications.

The jury is directed by Pascal Barillon, winner of the Best Baguette in Paris 2011 championship, and includes six bread baking professionals. Baguettes are graded according to six points: look, crust (color, crispiness), flavor, crumb (color, honeycombing), chewing and taste. The award ceremony will be held on Tuesday May 15 in front of the Notre-Dame Cathedral.