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Young Chinese Baker Rocks "Bread Olympics"

2024-01-08 11:53:00 Source:China Today Author:staff reporter WANG RUYING
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A young Chinese baker became a world champion by pursuing his passion and working hard to overcome challenges. 


dancing lion, giant panda, roller coaster, and a merry-go-round in eye-popping shapes — when these elements are grouped together, what kind of magic can happen? Winning magic if you are Gong Xin, a Gen Z baker from China who made a one-meter-high artistic creation using all of these elements. He won the ninth World Bread Competition (Mondial du Pain) as a result. Many Chinese found it hard to believe what he had done after seeing pictures. “This is virtually a work of art,” and “it is equivalent to a foreigner taking first place in a dumpling-making contest in China,” were some of the many online comments. As the host of the competition, France, famous for its bread-making techniques, was beaten into second place, leaving the French media shocked that a Chinese baker had won the famous world bread contest.

Last October, the ninth Mondial du Pain took place in Nantes, France. Since 2007, this competition has been one of the most recognized contests in the world bread industry, also known as “the Bread Olympic Games” and represents the finest bread baking techniques in the world. Contestants from 15 countries and regions competed on the same stage where they were required to make a total of 100 types of breads in eight major categories including baguettes, healthy breads, spicy breads, sandwiches, croissants, Danish breads, brioche, and artistic breads within eight and a half hours. It was a great test of the competitors' skills and endurance. Against all odds, Gong won the championship in France where bread is a staple food. He also became the first ever Chinese winner of this competition.

The “champion bread” designed and made by Gong Xin at the 2023 Mondial du Pain.

From Small-Towner to World Champion

Gong was born in 1995 in Xiangtan in central China’s Hunan Province. After graduating from a vocational school, he went to Shenzhen, and in his first job, worked as a factory worker on a production line. Following the advice of his parents, he later began to learn making Western style pastries at a training school in Shenzhen. In 2013, he worked in a bakery store in Shenzhen, marking the beginning of his career as a baker. Soon afterwards, he found out that simply working in a store could not fulfill his bread-making dream. Bakery stores tended to put more emphasis on the production capacity to meet market demands, while Gong wished to acquire more theoretical knowledge including dough making, fermentation, baking, and embellishment, with the aim of advancing his career. He then left to attend a noted bakery school in Suzhou, where he could hone his baking skills. Once Gong had completed the course, his teachers recognized his talent and hired him as a teacher at the school, something he had aspired to. The journey of growing from a general baker to a skilled bakery teacher took him only two years. But behind the rapid advancement was many dedicated hours of sweating in the kitchen.

He recalled, “When I first arrived in Suzhou, I found that the local ingredients, environment, temperature, and humidity were quite different. Back in Shenzhen, my breads were always better, but in Suzhou, they didn’t turn out the same as I was struggling to adapt to the local environment.”

To make breads that could satisfy him, he dedicated a large portion of his spare time to practicing bread making, sometimes for many hours. He even kept experimenting during long public holidays such as the Mid-Autumn Festival and the National Day holidays. “In my view, this is part of my life,” he said.

For Gong at that time, hard work had produced exceptional skills, but he kept wondering how he could take those skills to the next level. He cast his eyes around for baking competitions where he could both show off his skills as well as accumulate more experience when competing with other bakers. Gong’s debut at an international competition was in 2016. That year, the 44th National Vocational College Skills Competition was selecting candidates in his school. Without giving it much thought, he registered for the competition and took second place. This title qualified him as a reserve member of the national team. In 2017, he participated in the Mondial du Pain for the first time as an assistant baker. China claimed sixth place that year, the highest placing yet for the Chinese team. In 2020, he won the Louis Lesaffre Cup, one of the biggest international bakery competitions. This was followed by the highlight of his career in October 2023. Tutored by his coach Luo Mingzhong, he teamed up with Zhang Jiahui and the pair took first place at the Mondial du Pain.

Gong Xin and his team members raise their trophies high at the awards ceremony of the 2023 Mondial du Pain.

Plateau Flavor Takes the Global Stage

As a high-level international bakery competition, Mondial du Pain holds its entries to high standards by examining a wide range of indicators in terms of appearance, taste, aroma, flavor, texture, theme display, and creativity. It encourages participants to use ingredients and elements that are native to their countries, and such works tend to attract more positive comments from judges.

The competition required each contestant to make a nutritious and healthy types of bread. Upon receiving the requirements, Gong tried a number of mixed ingredients and eventually settled on ingredients that included organic wheat powder, organic whole wheat powder, black highland barley powder, and black highland barley seeds from Tibet, as well as seeds of prickly waterlily from eastern China’s Jiangsu Province. The black highland barley is a cereal cultivated on the Tibetan Plateau. It has multiple nutrients such as protein, dietary fiber, and Vitamin-E as well as minerals like magnesium and iron, which helps to boost immunity, regulate blood sugar, and promote intestinal health. Black highland barley powder contains more antioxidants, and the health benefits help slow down aging and prevent chronic diseases. Gong told China Today that in addition to the rich nutritional value, the bread flavor is more intense and the taste richer when highland barley is added.

Gong was not the only one who used highland barley as his “secret ingredient.” Two other “world champions” — Feng Yingjie and Lin Yeqiang — also selected highland barley as ingredients. In October 2023, they defended their title of the iba.UIBC.CUP of Bakers in Germany. The creative Chinese bakers fused China’s plateau flavor into Western food, presenting a splendid fusion of Eastern and Western cuisines. At the same time, the value of highland barley as a healthy crop gained recognition by the world bakery industry, meaning that this variety of cereal could become more-widely known as a baking ingredient.

A display of all the bread Gong Xin made at the 2023 Mondial du Pain. Photos courtesy of Gong Xin. 

Baked Goods Found on More Tables

In China, baked goods such as cakes, breads, and cookies are often considered as symbols of Western foods. According to the statistics of a German bread institute, more than 3,000 varieties of breads are baked and sold in Germany every day. Classic German flavors such as pretzels and whole wheat bread have become world-renowned.

However, with China’s economic growth, the changes in consumption habits and the accelerated rhythm of life have made many Chinese people gradually become consumers of bakery delights. The changes mean that bakeries have been entrenched as part of the mainstream diet in China, which in turn has promoted the development of China's baking industry.

According to a report on the development of China’s baking industry, China’s production and consumption volumes of bakeries in 2022 both amounted to around 19.57 million tonnes, an increase of six percent and 6.1 percent year-on-year respectively; and the industry’s market size reached RMB 628.69 billion, an increase of 7.4 percent year-on-year. In terms of market structure, pastry was the dominating category, accounting for about 29.6 percent of the total bakeries in the country, followed by cookies and bread, making up 18.7 percent and 10.5 percent respectively.

As China’s baking industry flourishes, its baked goods are not only receiving more awards at international competitions but also are served on tables in many more households. Long lines of young people can be seen queuing up at trendy bakery stores, an assortment of biscuits and cakes are sold on online platforms, and affordable and tasty baked treats are available on shelves in grocery stores. It is clear that Western-style bakeries are a big hit with Chinese consumers, adding new flavors to their lives.

On the journey of discovery, a young baker from a small town has been transformed into a world champion, but his perseverance and commitment remains. Young master Gong is pragmatic about his success. “During the course of a contest, as well as the research and development of product, bottlenecks are unavoidable. At that moment, one should learn to be more persistent and have more patience, passion, and dedication. More communication and exchanges with other people are also essential. You have to stay the course to be successful,” he said, adding that when all is said and done, the motivation he gets from watching people enjoying his bread is still the driving force that keeps him moving forward.

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