Blood, Sweat &Amp; Pastry

There is no pastry-chef equivalent of seppuku, the ritualistic method of suicide for shamed samurai, but if there were, Jean-Philippe Maury looks about ready to commit it. For 13 hours over the last two days he has guided the United States' three-man World Team Pastry Championship squad through the warp-speed production of a full table of desserts: bonbons, petits fours, a pair of cakes and two towering showpieces, one made entirely of sugar, the other chocolate. Everything went great. They cooked butt.

Then head judge Jacques Torres, the Food Network star and former pastry chef at Le Cirque, pulled the U.S. captain aside to break the news: Maury had made a mistake. While airbrushing his chocolate showpiece he applied a strip of clear, protective plastic to the back--and forgot to remove it. A tiny error, but enough to open the door for the French, the Belgians or even the upstart Japanese. For months, Maury, 33, had been assuring everyone of victory, but now doubt was creeping in. "It's a shame if we don't win because of a small mistake like that," he says. "But you cannot win every time." Maury would have to wait five hours to find out for sure. You only have to wait 10 paragraphs.

In case you're wondering, this is what competitive pastry-making looks like: 20 fanatics with painted faces shouting "Allez la France! Allez la France!" as a French chef swirls a pond of chocolate on a marble counter. Two kitchens down, a Japanese chef pulls a creme-drenched finger out of a bowl and, like a bullfrog snagging a fly, licks it clean when he thinks no one's watching. (He is mistaken.) Everybody here is insane, it turns out, especially the chefs. But crazy makes for quite a sight. The first-ever World Team Pastry Championships, held over the Fourth of July weekend at Las Vegas's Rio Hotel & Casino, pits 36 sweet-toothed Michelangelos from 12 countries in a grueling cook-off. Scoring works like this: 40 percent for "degustation," a fancy word for "taste"; 30 percent for presentation and 30 percent for cleanliness. The winner gets $50,000, but who cares about money when international bragging rights are on the line?

At the start of the weekend, the Americans were the favorite, in part because the game was in their backyard. Maury is executive pastry chef at Bellagio, one mile from the Rio. Jean-Claude Canestrier, 38, known as Mr. Sugar in his native France, works across the street at Paris. Only 32-year-old Laurent Branlard--yes, Team USA spoke nothing but French in the kitchen--had to travel. He's based in Atlanta at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead. (Many top pastry chefs work at hotels, where the money's great--as much as $250,000 a year.) The U.S. team was also outrageously talented. Maury--who left Manhattan's patisserie Payard for Vegas--and Canestrier are the Shaq and Kobe of pastry. Both hold the vaunted title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France, or MOF, the profession's top honor, awarded after a rigorous three-day competition. Team France, however, also arrived with a pair of MOFs. Someone had to lose--and folks, an MOF going down in competition is like Socrates' losing an argument. Need more drama? Maury and the French captain, Stephane Treand, are best friends. Prior to the contest, they didn't speak for nine months.

Of course, the entire field was stacked with brilliant chefs. Preparation--mastering the choreography of three cooks and hundreds of ingredients as time whizzes by--would be the key to victory. And Maury is an organizational savant. Everything about him is tidy, from his terse wit to the flecks of gray hair that fall in precise iterations around the edges of his scalp. He began drawing up the U.S. game plan six months ago. He made his team perform dry runs of the entire 13-hour race three times. He had Branlard study peaches for three months so he'd know precisely when their flavor suited a recipe. The goal was to reduce the possibility of defeat to just one scenario: an unlucky human error--like, say, overlooking a strip of plastic on the back of a showpiece.

The night before the competition, July 4, as people swarm the Vegas strip for the fireworks display, Maury and his team are in Bellagio's kitchen packing their gear. Right now, he's working on his chocolate-raspberry ganache bonbons. The rules stipulate that nothing can be mixed until the event begins, so Maury has every ingredient measured out in containers and clearly labeled. His assistant places everything on a plastic tray; then, running a strip of masking tape lengthwise over the tray, he quarantines the ingredients. Next comes Maury's coffee mix, followed by his praline mix. The tape will prevent the mixes from sliding together. "One of our tricks," says Branlard, who's already prepped 20 trays just like this one.

Even during kitchen setup on day one, it's clear who the thoroughbreds are. The U.S., French and Japanese work spaces are sparkling; the Italians have lugged their tools in a cardboard box. At 10 a.m., everyone leaves for breakfast but U.S. team manager Jacquy Pfeiffer doesn't budge. "There are teams," he says, "who will stop at nothing to make another one fail." Really? Sabotage? "Oh, yeah. You just go in somebody's drawer and take a tool. Something specific, not just a small knife. Or you go and unplug their freezer. But I'm here. I have eyes." Which leaves Maury free to be as anal as he wants. Before he leaves, he notices that Canestrier has stuck his prep schedules to the wall with duct tape. Maury peels off the duct tape and replaces it with clear Scotch tape. There. Now he's ready to go.

Alas, no one comes roaring out of the gate in cooking competitions. This ain't NASCAR. The first thing the Americans do after the whistle blows is grab towels and wipe down their counters. Just two hours later, though, Canestrier is already dazzling the crowd. Employing a vinyl-molding technique he invented, Mr. Sugar unveils the foundation of his showpiece: a translucent, 10-inch pillar with a second, green-tinted pillar suspended inside. A dozen judges gather around, gaping. "We have never seen that before," Torres says. "It's beautiful, no?"

Like Mr. Sugar's pillar, though, day one is largely foundation work. The teams have to present just one dish each--the potluckish "plated dessert"--so they spend much of their time prepping for day two. "What you're seeing today," says event cofounder Michael Schneider, publisher of Chocolatier and Pastry Art & Design magazines, "is like the underwear beneath the tuxedo."

By 5:45 the next morning, the desert air outside is already piping hot. It'll reach 108 degrees by noon. But inside it feels like a different galaxy. Maury, who slept at the Rio, away from his wife and 2-month-old son, has heard rumblings that his team's first dish--a blend of Branlard's peaches, yogurt ice cream and a graceful chocolate stem by the boss--was a smash hit with the judges. Which is nice, because moments later Maury has to swallow Team USA's first dose of rotten luck: they will "plate," i.e., present their dishes, first all day. Plating early is desirable because the judges' tummies aren't yet full, but first is too early. You want to clear the bar, not set it. And, it means dishes have to be ready faster. Team Spain draws second and is noticeably rattled: its first two platings arrive 40 seconds late, automatically dropping its presentation grade from an A to a D. Spain is out. The Americans adjust better, but the caramel glaze on their eight-layer entremets (cake) comes out a teensy bit burned. France pounces on the opening. "The U.S. cake was good," says Torres. "The Belgium cake was good. The French cake was, like, wow!"

All that remains is the showpieces. The theme: circus. (Actually, that's the theme for the entire event, but it's hard to fit a dancing bear on a bonbon.) Canestrier's sugar piece, a juggling clown, boasts wild colors, florid ribbons and a goofy face. Maury, meanwhile, is making a chocolate tiger leaping through a flaming hoop. It's kitschy and astounding. The finished showpieces are three feet tall and porcelain-fragile, and in the closing moments of the competition each team must gingerly carry them a few yards to their display tables. For days, Schneider has been predicting that at least one piece would buckle and crash--sugar schadenfreude--and Team Canada immediately obliges. The crowd of 400 gasps as shards fly, then "aws" tragically. Like they didn't love it. The remaining 23 pieces arrive unscathed, joining all the goodies finished hours ago. It looks gorgeous. It looks delicious. It looks like a tag sale at Willy Wonka's house.

So now, finally, we can rejoin Jean-Philippe Maury, freeze-framed in his moment of anguish. As the judges sift through their notes--do they reward the U.S. team's magical innovation and machinelike execution? Or France's consistent elegance? What about Belgium, with its peerless chocolate creations?-- Maury makes a go at being philosophical. He even tries pretending that he's past caring. Win or lose, he says, this competition will be his last. "It's been 15 years of doing this, and I'm tired. I have a wife. I'm a daddy now. Maybe I am getting too old." Perhaps, but you should've seen the old man jumping around when he found out he and his teammates were the world champions.