Baking on the World Stage
Baking on the World Stage
By Molly Absolon | Photography by Lara Agnew
Jerod Pfeffer was a teenager when he decided he wanted to try rock climbing.
“I was a good athlete,” Jerod says, “I looked at the range of the difficulty scale for climbing routes. It went from 5.0 to 5.14. I was young, I figured I’ll try one of the harder routes. It did not go well.” Jerod jumped onto a climb that was rated 5.13a. Anyone who knows anything about climbing knows that a 5.13a climb is hard— really hard—so Jerod’s failure was not surprising. What is surprising is the thought process that led him to try to start his climbing career at or near the top of the difficulty scale.
While Jerod calls it over-confidence, his business partner, college friend, and climbing partner, Ty Mack, calls it “Jerod’s super power.” “Jerod has an amazing ability to focus on whatever he is excited about to the exclusion of everything else,” Ty says. For the past decade, that focus has been on bread baking.
Jerod and Ty launched 460 Bread in Driggs in 2010. The business has grown rapidly, and in 2019 they renovated a building north of town, turning it into a state-of-the-art bread bakery, moving from a 4,000-square-foot space to a nearly 14,000-square-foot facility. That took a lot of energy and time from both men, especially since they acted as their own general contractors and did a lot of the hard labor themselves.
But what was demanding so much of Jerod’s attention last year was his quest to represent the United States at the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie—the World Cup of the Bakery, an event that brings the people most dedicated to their craft to Paris to gather, share their skills, and compete. The Coupe was previously held every four years, but as of this past spring it will take place every two years.
Jerod did not grow up baking bread—something that is noteworthy among competitive bakers, especially in France where the best bakers start competing at a young age. In other European countries, too, bakers are surrounded by a culture of baking competitions and will likely have a number of regional baking contests under their belt before making it to the Coupe.
“The United States team comes to the Coupe as the first big competition we’ve done,” Jerod says. “It’s unusual in the world of baking. Other countries have more formulaic ways of getting into the trade, and in the United States you can just do it. I was not a baker and I just became one.”
Jerod started baking as part of a ten-year homesteading experiment he and his wife, Sage Hibberd [co-publisher of this magazine], conducted near Felt in the northern end of Teton Valley. Fresh out of college and looking to be in the mountains, the couple dreamed of living off the land. They found a place they could afford—a lot accessible only by snow machine in the winter—and together built a straw-clay, timber-frame home where they set up house and lived off the grid. Jerod, focused as always, went on to co-author a book, Natural Timber Frame Homes, about his experience building his and other homes with wood, stone, clay, and straw.
“We raised our own food, had pigs and sheep and gardens,” Jerod says. “I started baking as a self-sufficiency thing.”
But, of course, Jerod didn’t just buy flour at the store for his baking projects. Instead he found a source for local wheat and, with a hand-cranked grain mill, ground his own flour, baking his loaves in a stone oven in his backyard.
“It was a confluence of opportunities,” he says. “We had a wood-fired oven, we had local grain, and I had experience working with my hands. The combination of those things made it seem like a fun project.
“Those first loaves were basically fragrant bricks,” Jerod says. “My wife was a good sport, but the bread was terrible.”
Determined to improve his skills, Jerod took a course at the San Francisco Baking Institute. He returned jazzed about baking and approached Ty with the idea of starting an artisan bakery in Teton Valley. Ty, who was beginning to feel less challenged and excited about his job at the time, thought the idea sounded fun. So, the two, with the guidance of world-renowned baker and instructor Didier Rosada—whom Jerod had met during his baking course—opened 460 Bread in 2010. That leap, from a baker of fragrant bricks to the owner of a bakery, may seem like a big one to most of us, but it was just another example of Jerod deciding to do something and going for it, full bore.
“When I first met Jerod, he was way into climbing,” Ty says. “Then he lived with some people [at college] on the volleyball team, and he was all about volleyball.”
You might think from reading about these anecdotes that Jerod is arrogant or has an inflated sense of his abilities, but that’s not it. He has a keen sense of humor about his obsessions and is humble and self-deprecating about his skills. But he agrees that once he’s set his mind on doing something, he throws himself into the effort and is satisfied only once he believes he’s as good as he can get.
Jerod’s idea of competing as a bread baker started in 2012 when he was a spectator at that year’s Coupe du Monde in Paris. Instead of being intimidated by the skills and expertise of the bakers he watched, he got excited and started thinking that maybe he, too, could be one of those competing on the international stage. And so, he began the process of transforming himself into not only a competent bread baker, but one of the best in the United States.
“Someone came up to us at the Coupe du Monde competition and asked us if people in Teton Valley know how good Jerod is,” says Kate Hull, co-publisher of Teton Valley Magazine. Kate was part of a Teton Valley fan club that traveled to Paris in January to cheer on Jerod and Team USA. “I told him I think the answer to that question is probably ‘no,’” she says.
Despite Jerod’s relatively late entrance into the world of baking, he has spent the last ten years immersed in it. 460 Bread produces thousands of loaves of bread per day. With every cycle, Jerod has been able to see how small changes—a shift of a degree or two in temperature during the fermentation of the dough, a different ratio in ingredients, a change in the weather—affects the loaves that come out of the oven.
Jerod, always meticulous, has taken notes on everything, nailing down the process for each product until he’s become satisfied with the outcome. 460 quickly gained a reputation for making delicious bread, and its products are a staple on locals and visitors’ shopping lists and featured on menus on both sides of the Tetons. But what was satisfactory for 460 was not good enough for the Coupe du Monde.
“Baking is a process,” Jerod says. “The ingredients of a baguette are pretty basic—flour, water, yeast, salt—but you have to do things well to get a good product. I can give you the recipe for our baguettes, but that is not going to enable you to re-create them. In that way it is similar to building a piece of furniture. You take one step after another, and if you skip anything or don’t do a good job at some point, it will affect the outcome.”
The Coupe du Monde was about competitors showing they understood what baking is all about while also leaving room for innovation.
“It is really hard to re-create something [perfectly] that has been around for 10,000 years, but it’s a worthy challenge, so that’s why we do it,” Jerod says. “As a parent and a busy person, it is easy to schedule time to work on straightening your baguette. At nine a.m., I can make time to practice my shaping, but it is really hard to make time and say, ‘At nine a.m., I will come up with a new bread.’”
Jerod was selected to be the Bread Bakers Guild Team U.S.A.’s “Baguette and Breads of the World” baker in January 2019. His teammates were Nicolas Zimmermann, of La Fournette in Chicago, who was responsible for the artistic design category (he’s the son of a previous Coupe du Monde champion and Team France coach); and Kathryn Goodpaster, of Patisserie 46 in Minneapolis, who took on the viennoiserie category. These are baked goods made from yeast-leavened dough, often laminated, and include things like croissants and brioche. Team USA was coached by Nicky Giusto, of Central Milling. He was a competitor in 2016.
All three team members had regular jobs, so they practiced on their own during the year, coming together for several trial run-throughs when they could at different locations around the country. Team coordination is a critical part of the competition, so these get-togethers were vital. At the Coupe du Monde, the bakers would work in a confined space sharing equipment, counters, utensils, pans, and ovens. They had to learn to do their job, stay out of one another’s way, and help each other when necessary. And they had to do it without appearing flustered. A messy kitchen, flour-covered clothing, and piles of dirty pans are considered bad style and can cause teams to lose critical points. Each team would have a total of ten hours to produce a long list of required products during the competition. The first two hours, which take place the night before the competition, are when the dough is prepped. The following day, the team has eight hours to finish everything else.
Team USA planned to have a week of time before the competition to practice in Alsace, along France’s border with Germany, where team member Nicolas, and his father Pierre, are originally from. Adding to the stress of training for the mammoth event, a pallet of supplies ended up stranded in customs. The team never saw it, forcing them to scrounge for some critical ingredients. The international travel, a lack of sleep, and the missing pallet all helped add to the mounting pressure of the event.
On their first go at running through their routine, the team finished an hour and forty-five minutes over their allotted time. The second time, they took an hour too long. Jerod had a detailed schedule broken down into five-minute intervals telling him exactly what should be happening when for the entire eight-hour window. The rest of the team had similar plans, but they weren’t working. They were not going fast enough.
“As a team, we agreed we don’t need to finish on time every time we do this, but on this day in Alsace we needed to,” Jerod says.
The next day, the team practiced again and finished with ten minutes to spare.
“We finished on time, and we went to Paris with the knowledge that we can finish on time,” Jerod says. Team USA competed on the first day of the Coupe du Monde, finishing on time in front of a cheering crowd of fans, many of them Alsatians, friends of the Zimmermanns who came dressed in what they considered to be all-American attire: denim shirts with an American flag on the sleeve. The team members were thrilled with their performance. Unfortunately, three days later when the results were announced, they did not end up on the podium.
“The judging is so subjective,” Jerod says. “We wanted to bring home a medal, but we had the best day we could possibly have. We worked as a team really well. Our products were good. I made the best baguettes I’ve ever made.
“The results were not that clear. Up until the moment they announced the winners, we definitely thought we had a chance to podium. Obviously, we went to the competition because we wanted to win, so we were disappointed. But that disappointment fades. Regrets last longer, and we don’t have any regrets. I don’t think we could have done anything better, so we won’t be haunted by that.”
Jerod says now he’s ready to sleep in, build LEGO projects with his daughter, pick his clothes up off the floor, and generally become a contributing member of his family once again. As for his future in baking competitions? Jerod thinks he’s done, and that his next adventure will be helping other bakers like him do what it takes to elevate their skills enough to compete at the next Coupe.