Kings of Pastry
Imagine a competition that takes place every four years and requires not only hard work, talent and skill, but also the blood, sweat and tears of it’s primed participants. The Olympics, you ask? No, it’s France’s prestigious Meilleurs Ouvriers (Best Craftsmen) de France.
In the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, or the MOF as the French often call it, top French pastry chefs train for years (and in some cases, decades) to compete in an intense three-day contest where they must create fantastical — and flavorful — concoctions.
In the Kings of Pastry, filmmakers D.A. Penebaker and Chris Hegedus turn their never-blinking camera lens on three pastry chefs competing in the MOF, but focus mostly on Jacquy Pfeiffer — a native of France who now makes his home in the United States. Pfeifer is self-deprecating and personable, but also deeply passionate about his craft.
As the film opens, Pfeifer is developing his strategy, experimenting with cakes, pastries and sugar sculptures to suit the theme “Weddings.” In the test kitchen, he creates cream puffs that make our State Fair pastries look like chumps. He fashions chocolate candies that are almost too beautiful to eat, and diagrams the layers of a cake on a dry erase board. Apparently, creating pastries is not just an art; it’s a science.
The excitement truly begins once the Pfeiffer and his fellow competitors arrive in France. Under the exacting eyes of the judges, the chefs create extravagant but incredibly delicate sugar sculptures, whimsical candies and petit fours, and beautiful wedding cakes. The judges’ taciturn faces betray no emotion, and the competitors are left wondering whether they are pleased or disappointed with their work.
The sugar sculptures were probably one of the fascinating focal points in the film – this is not the time for the contestants to show restraint. Manipulating strips of sugar by using their own bare hands, as well as tools like mini-blow torches and sanders, the chefs fashion flowers, butterflies, human figures and geometric shapes into sweetened monuments that can only be called the Lady Gaga of sugar sculptures. Moving them requires almost military precision to transport from the kitchen to the judging area.
Yet, kitchen mishaps do occur, and it’s hard not to share the same crushing disappointment when these amazing structures (representing months of planning and days of laborious work) comes crashing down.
At the end of it all, the competitors seem beaten as if in battle. The judges are also exhausted — the head judge is even teary-eyed as he names the recipients of the prestigious collar. Some who don’t make the cut vow to try again; others throw in their aprons.
Penebaker and Hegedus cinema verité style allows the chefs, judges, and of course, the pastries to speak for themselves. The filmmakers’ camera expertly captures everything from the intricacy of using a piping bag to the very personal anguish of one mortified pastry chef. Kings of Pastry , and the love and devotion of creating edible works of art, is definitely food for thought.
The next screening for Kings of Pastry is Tuesday, Sept. 28, 5:15 p.m. at the Oriental Theatre. For tickets and additional info, click here.