For months, Stephen Durfee has been working in a back room at the CIA on a top secret project. His objective: world domination. His weapon: chocolate.
This is, after all, St. Helena’s CIA, the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.
Durfee moved one step closer to his goal last weekend when he secured a place as one of three Americans comprising the team that will represent the U.S. in the upcoming equivalent of the World Cup for pastry chefs, the Coupe Du Monde de la Patisserie in Lyon, France in January 2013.
Durfee, an instructor at the CIA since 2000, will spend his 50th birthday serving as the team chocolatier.
Last September, Durfee was invited to compete against three other top U.S. pastry chefs for the chocolate expert role on the team. He was given a theme — communication — around which to design and prepare three creations at a two-day competition in Grand Rapids, Mich. Just how he chose to express the theme was to remain a secret until the finals.
Observers watching Durfee as he rehearsed for the competition only saw someone turning out version after version of chocolate telephones, chocolate wings and chocolate squiggly things. His theme revealed was: Batman. “How the police commissioner of Gotham City communicates with Batman,” in chocolate, Durfee explained.
After months of preparing, working with students in the CIA baking and pastry program, Durfee, along with his “manager” Jessica Roberts, a recent graduate serving an apprenticeship in the CIA chocolate shop, and current student Maureen Foley, who had been helping Durfee practice, departed last Wednesday for Michigan.
“It was an adventure from start to finish,” said Durfee, who said Delta Airlines balked when he showed up at the airport with an oversized box of supplies that included pre-baked sponge cakes.
“They were going to charge me $175,” Durfee said, “but then when they asked me what was in the box, and I explained about the competition, they got into it. It was a patriotic thing. They decided not to charge me after all.”
Durfee had three hours on Friday and eight on Saturday to prepare his creations for a panel of 16 judges. “I can assure you we used every minute,” he said.
He was assigned an assistant, a recent graduate from the Grand Rapids community college culinary program. “He did everything I asked him but he was not an experienced pastry chef,” Durfee said. “I think it was part of the test to see how well we performed under pressure.”
Durfee was required to prepare a chocolate entremet — a chocolate cake — as well as a restaurant-style dessert and a sculpture in chocolate. The judges were wowed by Durfee’s first creation, a circular cake, which when sliced revealed a custard center in the shape of a yellow Batman signal.
His second creation, though perfect Batmen in theme, was not a hit with all the judges, Durfee said. Told to include a “distinctly American” flavor, he chose peanut butter for his “nugget glacée,” an elaborate frozen mousse. The French judges on the panel were not enthusiastic. “They told me I should have used Nutella,” he said.
His elaborate chocolate sculpture, however, proved to be a bat-winged victory.
Now, Durfee will begin training with the two other pastry chefs on the team, who are from Chicago and Las Vegas and will be the team’s sugar artist and ice carver. Between now and January they’ll be meeting once a month to work together. In Lyon, they’ll compete against teams from 20 other countries from Asia and Europe.
Durfee, who was part of the opening team for the French Laundry in 1994, spent more than five years at the Yountville restaurant, working his way up to become the executive pastry chef.
While at The French Laundry, he won the 1998 James Beard Award for Pastry Chef of the Year and was named one of the 10 Best Pastry Chefs in America in 1999 by Pastry Art & Design and Chocolatier magazines.
He also worked as pastry chef at Charles Nob Hill in San Francisco, at the Wheatleigh Hotel in Lenox, Mass., and as a pastry instructor at Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School and served apprenticeships in restaurants in Paris and Chambery, France.
He said he first became interested in competitions in 2003 when he was watching pastry chefs’ event in Las Vegas. “It was so dramatic and exciting,” he said, that he went on to compete in four subsequent competitions to hone his skills as a chocolatier. He was aiming for the ultimate competition, the Coup du Monde.
“I’ve been told that nothing in the world compares to what happens in that experience,” Durfee said.
His win in Michigan, he noted, was really the result of a team effort, with strong backing from the students, chefs and managing director of the CIA at Greystone, Charles Henning.
“I’m just the lucky one who gets to wear the medal,” Durfee said.