When Stephen Durfee worked as an opening chef for the French Laundry in 1994, it was one of the best learning experiences of the pastry chef's life.
Lessons from that high-pressure kitchen, such as the teamwork and cross-training, will pay off for Durfee this month as he and three other pastry chefs compete at the prestigious World Pastry Cup in Lyon, France, as part of the U.S. Pastry World Cup team.
La Coupe du Monde de la Patisserie is no cakewalk, with top chefs from 22 countries converging on France's center of gastronomy to go mano-a-mano with their pastry panache.
"This is the most important competition for pastry chefs," said Durfee, who now works as a baking instructor at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, in St. Helena. "The U.S. won in 2001, and the captain of that team is our coach, Ewald Notter."
During the competition, which takes place Jan. 27 and 28, each team will have a 9-hour window to create an ice sculpture, a sugar centerpiece, a chocolate centerpiece and three desserts.
Durfee, who will make a chocolate sculpture and a plated dessert as the team's "chocolatier," first got hooked on competitions after making desserts for a national championship in Las Vegas.
"I saw the sculptures and said, 'I want to do that,' " he recalled. "So I decided to learn it."
Durfee was invited to submit an application for the World Pastry Cup after tryouts were announced in September 2011. Last April, he beat out three other finalists for the coveted position as the chocolate specialist on the team.
Since then, the American team has been meeting monthly in Grand Rapids, Mich., to practice under the watchful eye of Certified Master Pastry Chef Gilles Renusson, president of the U.S. Pastry World Cup team.
The team had to come up with a theme that would carry through all of their creations, and they decided to see if chocolate, sugar and ice could fly.
"We are exploring a concept of human-powered flight," Durfee said. "Some are artistic, some mechanical, some mystical."
In addition to Durfee, the American team consists of team captain and sugar sculptor Andy Chlebana, of Chicago; ice carver Christophe Feyt, of Las Vegas; and alternate Roy Pell, of Arizona, who is required to know everyone's job.
For the competition, Durfee will build a 4-foot-by-4-foot sculpture paired with a plated dessert based on the Paris Brest, a round pastry that was inspired by a bicycle race.
"You have to wow the judges and demonstrate new techniques," said Durfee, who practices his craft daily at the chocolate room next to the CIA's Spice Islands Marketplace at the St. Helena campus.
Durfee's sculpture, made from melted chocolate poured into custom molds, must be light enough for him to pick up but strong enough to withstand stress.
"You have to pick it up and carry it and walk around with it," he said. "It will weigh 30 pounds."
The pastry chef is working with artists Tule O'Brien and Steven Chais of Silika Studios in Occidental, who create the silicone molds for the chocolate.
Like bronze, the melted chocolate is poured into the molds and left to cool. Then it is unmolded and attached to other pieces.
"Chocolate is not super strong, and it's dependent on temperature," Durfee said. "The challenges are weight and balance and how things hold together."