Contributed by chef Kevin Ashton, food writer

For anyone interested in food, the Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie is the World Cup, perhaps the most prestigious culinary competition in the world. So much effort, skill and in some cases a year of practice have helped make The World Pastry Cup the ultimate pastry prize to win. Each of the 22 teams representing their countries are at this year's event, held Jan. 25 and 26, were urged on by their noisy supporters; this event is definitely not for the fainthearted.

Started in 1989 by French Master Pastry Chef Gabriel Paillasson, the competition has become a true launching pad for culinary world stardom. The competition is held once every two years in Lyon, the culinary epicenter of France, which boasts many culinary accolades and stars of its own. In essence, the competition pits the 22 teams against each other for medals and trophies. Each team consists of three chefs who produce a chocolate dessert, a frozen dessert and a plated dessert, along with three sculptures crafted from sugar, chocolate and ice.

The Almond Board of California, one of the major sponsors of the event, invited me to report on this stunning spectacle. Unlike any other culinary event I’ve seen, each country takes it in turn to bring their desserts out to great fanfare and huge media coverage. A team needs to produce two of each dish so that one can be available for the press to take hundreds of photos and the second is sliced into portions and offered to the 22 judges, one from each of the competing countries.

Team USA comprised: captain David Ramirez (second from left), executive pastry chef at Rosen Shingle Creek in Orlando, Fla.; team member Roy Pell (second from right), executive pastry chef at the Phoenician in Scottsdale, Ariz.; team member (far right)Remy Funfrock, restaurant pastry chef at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and alternate Jim Mullaney, executive pastry chef with Artisans Group in Atlanta.

In preparation for the competition, the teams had to first think of a theme, and Team USA chose "Native American." Once the theme was selected, the team members and coach Sylvain Leroy, plus team president pastry chef En-Ming Hsu (far left), spent much of their free time individually and collectively at L'Académie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Md. Team USA practiced three to four days a month for a year before the World Pastry Cup.

Bad luck turned the fortunes of the Dutch and American teams in separate instances. Team USA’s 3-foot-tall chocolate sculpture fell over when the team tried moving it in the overheated kitchen, just a mere 20 minutes before the end of the competition. A more dramatic calamity happened to the Netherlands sculpture when it collapsed from the display table and broke into a thousand pieces in front of the huge audience. Deafening silence fell upon the room as all eyes and TV cameras turned to the stunned Dutch team members, who could barely believe what had happened.

Team USA did come away from the competition with an award for the best ice carving in the show, which is no small feat when you consider the competition they were up against. However, for a team that had worked so hard and sacrificed much to be at the show they had been hoping to match the feat of the 2001 American team, which had become culinary legends after winning gold.

Having watched much of the two-day competition, I could see why the French team was clearly the favorite, ably led by the 23-year-old captain Jerome de Olveira.The team members showed nerves of steel and tremendous skill. I asked them during an interview before the results were announced if they felt additional pressure because France has won this competition so many times. With modesty, they explained their focus didn't give them time to consider or worry about the history of the competition.

When the judging was complete, Team France was indeed crowned Pastry Champions of the World, and as I watched the media frenzy, I truly understood for the first time the importance of this competition.
Images courtesy of the World Pastry Cup