Kings of Pastry
A sweet delight
Does the world really need another window on food competition? Channel surf your cable box most days of the week and you can have your fill, from impromptu throwdowns and quick-fire challenges to “Iron Chef’’ battles and all-out cupcake wars.
Just when you thought every ingredient in the pantry had been used, along come Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker with a documentary that manages a few surprises. Their new film, “Kings of Pastry,’’ goes inside an intense event that few Americans know much about — a kind of tradesmen’s Olympics in which the winners are awarded the status of Meilleur Ouvrier de France (popularly referred to as MOF, meaning top craftsman) and get to wear a red, white, and blue collar trumpeted as a symbol of excellence by no less than Nicolas Sarkozy. This three-day final exam of sorts (anyone who passes gets the collar) happens every four years for a handful of qualified candidates. The prep time and pressure can be crushing.
Directors Hegedus and Pennebaker, best known for their riveting chronicle of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign (“The War Room’’), prove they also know their way around the culinary world. They were smart to focus on the dessert-making portion of the cooking competition, where precision and artistry are relatively clear concepts. Even smarter, they play up the stakes but don’t overplay their consequences. Some things are tragic, but nothing here is life or death. Without being flip, the filmmakers endeavor to expose absurdity (can there really be that much nuance to the perfect cream puff?) and encourage skepticism, especially around the variables of judging.
“Kings of Pastry’’ spends most of its time following the competitive efforts of Jacquy Pfeiffer, cofounder of the French Pastry School in Chicago. Pfeiffer is hard-working and likable, as are his family and friends, but you get the sense early on that he’s a long shot for MOF designation (why does that sound so dirty?). In his first try, it’s hard to believe he’ll be able to compete with veteran contestants and hometown favorites, even if he was born in Alsace. The film is built as much on doubt as it is on hope.
Pfeiffer flies back to his native France to train with a few key advisers, including business partner Sebastien Canonne, a successful MOF alum. He hunkers down in humble quarters above a bakery while his competitors — the two given extended camera time are Philippe Rigollot and Regis Lazard — have fancy test kitchens and legions of local fans. We watch the Chicagoan pour and pull endless amounts of sugar, agonize over elaborate showpieces, and refine the layers of his raspberry wedding cake until our own hands and brains ache, too. Finally, the big day comes.
What happens during the grueling, 72-hour MOF event is both anticipated and surprising. It’s not fair to say more, except that when the inevitable shocker comes, it arrives without build-up (a concept foreign to reality TV) and it’s startling enough to make you gasp. Everything that happens from there on is a revelation. And while some will say the competition’s end undercuts the entire premise of the film, it really does just the opposite. In cooking, as in life, success is subjective. The sweetness is in participating.
Janice Page can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.