Kings of Pastry
Whether it's sports, dancing or eating, if there's something that Americans like more than recreational activities, hobbies and interests, it's watching other people compete in those arenas. When it comes specifically to baking and cooking there are, by my last count, 4,752 shows on the Food Network and other cable channels about culinary competitions and/or niche specialties, so it comes as no great surprise that a high-stakes dessert competition would get the full-fledged documentary treatment in the form of Kings of Pastry, opening this week in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall, Town Center 5 and Playhouse 7.
Co-directed by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, the film focuses on the prestigious Meilleurs Ouvriers de France competition (Best Craftsmen in France), held, like the Olympics, only once every four years. The sixteen finalists, French-born pastry chefs all, gather in Lyon for three intense days of mixing, piping and sculpting everything from delicate chocolate confections to six-foot sugar sculptures in hopes of being declared one of the best by President Nicolas Sarkozy, and winning a coveted blue, white and red-striped collar — the culinary elite equivalent of a green Master's jacket in golf, or an Academy Award in cinema.
The film predominantly charts Jacquy Pfeiffer (above), co-founder of Chicago's French Pastry School, as he journeys back to his childhood home of Alsace more than a month before the event to practice for the contest. Two other finalists are profiled in the film — Regis Lazard, competing for the second time after a crucial drop of his sugar sculpture the first time, and Philippe Rigollot, a chef from Maison Pic, France's only three-star restaurant owned by a woman. During the grueling final competition, chefs work under constant scrutiny by a squad of master judges, and subject themselves to the critical palates of some of the world's most renowned chefs, who evaluate their elaborate pastries. Finally, in a twist that will likely ring familiar to anyone who's paused on the Food Network for more than five minutes, these pastry marathoners must complete their race against the clock by hand-carrying all their creations, including their fragile sugar sculptures, through a series of rooms to a final buffet area without shattering them.
Filmmakers Pennebaker (Monterey Pop, Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back) and Hegedus (Startup.com) are experienced "name" documentarians and established collaborators (The War Room, Down the Mountain), but they seem to coast a bit here on the exclusivity of their secured access to the never-before-filmed event, largely eschewing probing questioning of its subjects and their unique world in the name of an uninspired, point-and-shoot style that rivals Sarah Palin for its lack of inquisitiveness. The selection process for the finalists? Not addressed. Other competitors outside of the aforementioned trio? Not addressed. The number of designated winners? Not addressed. The specifics of the chefs' job duties and backgrounds, and how that might either advantage or disadvantage them in certain areas of the competition? Not addressed.
So it's a sign of the artistry on display that Kings of Pastry, after a slow start, eventually matures (ripens? comes to a boil?) into something not only engaging, but actually also kind of poignant. The film showcases the extraordinary level of skill and nerve required to tackle the competition, certainly (as well as practice: Pfeiffer sweats out time trials with his coach, while Lazard's wife notes that his basement kitchen is his true home), but it also highlights how luck plays a part in things too. (Taste and artistic merit scores are still subjective, after all.) That makes the culmination of the competition, with its failures and inspirational elevations, something to which everyone can relate. The biggest tangential takeaway, however, is how and why European chefs will always remain, collectively, a cut above their American counterparts — the exactitude required is immense, and Stateside notions of masculinity don't allow for this much attention to be paid to food of any sort, without much derision. For more information on the movie, click here. (First Run, unrated, 84 minutes)