The Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie: Martin Philip's quest for baking gold

Martin Philip Coupe du Monde @kingarthurflour

I see a child, maybe 10 years old. He is red-dirt stained with wild and inquisitive eyes, one of four brothers and a lone sister who comprise the Philip clan.

Martin Philip and his siblings take to the back woods of the Arkansas Ozarks like a pack of mischievous coyotes, an imaginary world beyond the realm of adult vision clear to them as day. There is an old boxcar in these woods where they pretend to be hobos, chewing on foraged sassafras root and making up stories.

I imagine the mind of the philosopher Martin grew up to be in the child he was then – contemplating the journey of the boxcar across state lines, carrying wheat and corn, tobacco and whiskey.

Today, I taste molasses and walnuts and good root beer in the Kvassmiche and boxcar loaves Martin slices for us to share – and feel nostalgia for a memory that isn’t mine.

Martin Philip Coupe du Monde @kingarthurflour

“No good,” announces Martin, studying the loaf closely and snapping me out of my daydream. “See, the crumb is too tight, and the aromatics aren’t coming through evenly.” He points at the internal structure before raising the loaf to his nose.

Martin Philip Coupe du Monde @kingarthurflourLoaves of Kvassmiche

“Too much sassafras, not enough smoke.”

Martin Philip Coupe du Monde @kingarthurflourPower-BROT soaker – one of many brews Martin made to infuse flavor into his breads

He turns from the board and studies his formula, making notes in the margins. Exhaustion and frustration accentuate the hard lines of his face as he thinks about what to do. It’s the best bread I’ve ever eaten, but only to date. Over the course of the following three months Martin will improve every aspect of this dough.

Martin Philip Coupe du Monde @kingarthurflourSassafras root

Martin Philip Coupe du Monde @kingarthurflourMartin prepares a lame before slashing Kvassmiche loaves

Martin Philip Coupe du Monde @kingarthurflour

Martin is competing for a spot in the Coupe Du Monde, the so-called “Baking Olympics” held once every 3 years in Paris – one of the world’s toughest baking competitions.

For over a year he’s been working to represent the United States in the bread category, edging out all but four other competitors from around the country. This is the final round, and he’s easily putting in upwards of 80 hours a week to perfect five recipes – five loaves of bread.

Martin Philip Coupe du Monde @kingarthurflourBaguettes proof during one of many all-day test-bakes Martin ran, practicing for the trials that would determine whether or not he moved on to the next stage of competition. He completed three stages in total.

“It’s not about winning,” Martin tells me before leaving for his final trial, where unbeknownst to him he will bake a perfect set. “The event is a way of just saying, ‘I believe that in this amount of time, I can be something more than I am at this moment.’ And it’s going to force me via fear, or whatever the motivation is, to actually do the training, which is really what it’s all about.”

Martin Philip Coupe du Monde @kingarthurflourSunseed crescent rolls

It’s hard to believe that Martin has only been serious about bread for a little over 15 years. Before this chapter in his life he was a professional opera singer, a Wall Street trader, and an ultra-marathoner. He excelled at each of these endeavors, but longed for something else.

Martin Philip Coupe du Monde @kingarthurflourDecorative baguettes, dusted with cocoa powder (left) and flour (right)

“When I think about how I started baking, there are two moments that stand out. The first was September 11, 2001. I was living in New York at the time, and remember very specifically looking south at the hole where the buildings once stood and saying, ‘I need to get back to myself. Life is too short to be so far from who I am.’

“I’d had had various jobs, but I always had this connection with food. My mom was a baker, and so was my grandmother. So baking was this thing that was always in my mind. I was performing a concert in Berkeley around that time, staying with a family in the area. This guy pulled out these bagels he had made, and they were some of the best I’ve ever had… and that was it. I was like, ‘This is what I’m doing now…’ ”

Martin Philip Coupe du Monde @kingarthurflourRye flour, used in Martin’s Boxcar loaf

Martin Philip Coupe du Monde @kingarthurflourCandied pecans, also used in the Boxcar loaf

Martin Philip Coupe du Monde @kingarthurflour

Power-BROT, two ways. Inspired by a recipe from Martin’s grandmother, “Momie,” the cans represent the traditional steamed brown bread she used to make on the stove top,

For the next five years, Martin baked seriously at home. He read everything he could get his hands on, and practiced with the discipline of a conservatory student. He rigged his home oven to bake at dangerously high temperatures, melting the kitchen cabinets in his New York City 215th St. apartment.

Martin applied to King Arthur Flour three times before he was hired, but as he puts it, “I wasn’t going to take no for an answer.” He and his wife, Julie, moved to Vermont, where Martin’s father and his father before him had grown up. Ten years later, Martin was competing for a seat on Team USA at the Coupe du Monde.

Martin Philip Coupe du Monde @kingarthurflour

Martin Philip Coupe du Monde @kingarthurflour

“At first with the Coupe, the target I was trying to reach was the one the judges hung. But over time, and with the acquisition of skills, I realized I didn’t really care about that anymore, because that wasn’t the long-term goal.

“Over time, I came to realize that the only way I could win was to connect with myself, to connect with my heritage. I had a story that I could tell about each one of the breads I baked in the final round that had meaning to me – that said something about where I came from and who I am, because that’s the only thing that’s interesting. That’s the only story I have.”

Martin Philip Coupe du Monde @kingarthurflourAnise fig bread – one of my personal favorites!

Martin Philip Coupe du Monde @kingarthurflour

Martin Philip Coupe du Monde @kingarthurflourBeekeeper’s Pain de Mie – a milk bread infused with honey, lavender, and chamomile

It’s hard to know which is more satisfying – the pleasure created by the flavors and nuance of Martin’s breads, or the stories that tie each recipe together. For his version of a beekeeper’s Pain de Mie, Martin recalls his children when they were very young, and could only gum at the sweet breads they were given.

His Sunseed recalls a time in Martin’s life when he was more rigid, perhaps in his conservatory and opera-singing days. It celebrates the loss of control when squash is planted in neat rows, only to grow uncontrollably as the summer’s heat and rains overrule man’s desire for order.

He writes about baguettes as the simple, beautiful, yet frustrating form that takes so many years to really understand; the parallels between the form and the man who yearns to master it are clear.

Martin Philip Coupe du Monde @kingarthurflour

“You, me, everybody – you go back two generations, and we come from people who did things with their hands. We’re just not that removed from it, even if we have fallen out of it. Baking is my way of going back.”

Martin Philip Coupe du Monde @kingarthurflour

In the end, Martin was bested by a competitor in the final round by just a fraction of a point. But to hear him tell it, this barely matters.

The way he sees it, Martin left with something far more valuable and priceless: a collection of stories and recipes that point to who he is today by way of where he came from – a proverbial map of his heritage, where all roads lead home.

NOTE: Most of Martin’s bread recipes aren’t formulated for baking at home, but he’s modified one of them for home use – see our blog post, Mission Fig Bread.  

Julia Reed
About

Julia Reed is a New England-based food and lifestyle writer/photographer, and Multimedia Producer at King Arthur Flour. Educated at Emerson College in Boston, she spent 5 years in Los Angeles before returning East, leaving behind food trucks, secret dinners, and year-round farmers’ markets to pursue ...

comments

  1. Mary Valentin

    Julia,
    Beautiful writing about a worthy subject. And I recognize the IACP prize winning photo too!

    Reply
  2. Sue

    Hooray for beautiful bread, beautiful images, and beautiful stories.Thanks for sharing this, and here’s a vote for seeing more of the path from concept-memory-inspiration to baked product, too.

    Reply
  3. xj

    That was a wonderful article, and so inspiring! I do wonder, how did he get those finely imprinted patterns on the bread! They make the bread almost come to life!

    Reply
  4. Moira Jones

    What an interesting article and such lovely photos. The photo of the Steamed Brown Bread made my mouth water for a rough brown bread my Gran used to buy at the Co-Op bakery in our town of Coatbridge, Scotland. Great story. Great accomplishment by Mr. Philip.

    Reply
  5. Carol

    Thru Martin’s quest we have all benefited in our own way. Many thanks Martin and congratulations on your wonderful creations.

    May I also thank Julia for an outstanding article.

    Reply
    1. Julia Reed, post author

      Thank you so much, Carol! I’m very grateful that I get to write about such talented and inspirational bakers, and that I get to read feedback from wonderful people like you.

  6. Sam Philip

    All I can say is that my brother is a “bread pimp”. Everything he says is part of my upbringing, and it makes me extremely proud to have see him symbolize it in this form of expression. Love you bro!

    Reply
  7. Sherry

    I don’t know what to comment on first! Should it be the driven and accomplished baker, who has created the most beautiful bread I have ever seen and wish I could not only taste, but watch it created? The photographs are worthy of a gallery wall and captured the beauty and the essence of what must be inside those loaves of bread. Finally, the prose which eloquently brought to life the story of both the bread and the man, merits a prize for elevating it above any culinary tome I have ever read! I am thrilled to wake up this morning on the day America honors those who have died for their country and read such a wonderful story sponsored by a company whose roots go back to our country’s birth! Thank you Julia, you have literally made my day!!!!l

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We are honored to have made your day, Sherry. We hope to continue to inspire you and many other readers in the years to come. And thank you (from all of us here at King Arthur!) for taking the time to express your gratitude! Elisabeth@KAF

    2. Julia Reed, post author

      Sherry – thank you so much for your kind words and heartfelt response. You totally made my day, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you taking the time to write such a thoughtful and beautiful note.

  8. Kay

    I love the KAF coverage and interviews with the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie! Are there any documentaries or books about this event?

    Reply
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