The arcane world of elite dessert chefs forms the atmospheric setting one of the ultimate tests of strength and spirit. Another winner from Hegedus and Pennebaker.
Chris Hegedus teamed up with D.A. Pennebaker once again for another one of their one-of-kind insider looks at an industry most people do not even know exists. This is the pastry industry; those tireless individuals who work to make us fat. No, they don’t make us fat, they provide us with works of art that we eat.
Very few Americans have ever eaten anything that would qualify as a work of art unless one courts Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans. Cheap food makes us fat, food that is art enriches us in more ways than we know.
The context of the film is the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, the most prestigious pastry competition in the world. The MOF is not a competition between chefs, it is a qualification trial to see who gets to wear the tri-color collar patterned after the flag of France.
Those who wear this collar are experts in the art and science of pastry and dessert preparation. They are also tough as nails. After decades of daily practice, 70 chefs are invited for two-day grueling semi-final trial. Of that 70, 16 are selected to go to the finals in Lyon, France, the center of French cuisine.
Jacquy Pfeiffer, co-founder of Chicago’s French Pastry School, travels back to his hometown of Alsace for two months of isolation to prepare, monk like, for three days of non-stops final trials. In the trials all contestants will be given a series of assignments from small desserts to giant sugar sculptures.
The resulting works are graded on a range where zero means almost perfect and the top of the scale is a level of perfection never seen before by the masters judging the contest. There is no competition between the chefs themselves, they are competing against the standards set by the MOF to wear the collar of the MOF. To wear the collar without having earned it is a crime punishable by imprisonment.
As Pfieffer leaves behind his partner Rachel and his three daughters for his seclusion chef Philippe Rigollot leaves his job as head chef at the three star restaurant Maison Pic (the only three star restaurant in France owned by a woman).
Fourteen other leave their prestigious positions at the top eateries around the world to journey to Lyon where they will work like kitchen slaves for three days in an attempt to produce desserts that amaze judges who have themselves made history in the craft.
As the men compete they are under the constant inspection of the judges. Every flower they make, every ribbon of sugar they pull, every squeeze of the pastry tube is witnessed and documented by the extensive staff of observers. This contest is about time as much as it is about skill. There is never enough time to make everything the contestants want to make.
Even worse, there are always breakages of the fragile sugar sculptures. The statuesque monuments are not only aesthetic and epicurean miracles but are structural engineering masterpieces as well. Each one is a complex assemblage of tensile and compression members made from chocolate and candy cemented together with a glue of caramel and syrup.
Platter with built in shock absorbers are devised to ensure a soft landing of the finished piece on the table top, lest the slightest shock wave crack a key tendon and lead to the collapse of the entire piece in the final minutes of the contest.
All of the finalists tell stories like this. As it turns out the directors are there to film the worse of worst-case scenarios when Rigollot is carrying his finished spider web of hard candy arcs and rings across the room. Suddenly, the entire upper half cracks and shatters for no reason whatsoever.
It was a little too damp and the humidity was weakening all of the sculptures. His did not have the factor of safety required. It was design too close to the edge. In the minutes left in the competition he recovers from his shock and on the verge of a complete breakdown re-makes a sculpture from scratch to scavenge what point he can from that part of the trials.
“Kings of Pastry” is a great documentary because it takes the viewer into a secret world than remains closed to the public—the private world of world-class food preparation. Hegedus has a track record of these success stories with her Emmy Nominated “Elaine Stritch: At Liberty” in 2004 and the political docu-classic of the Clinton presidential campaign, “War Room” in 1993.
If you have any interest in secret brotherhoods, don’t miss her Director’s Guild winning, Sundance nominated “Startup.com.” “Start-up” one of the best super-indie-sleepers of all time about twp pals who take a computer software firm from nothing to the stars, and back again, faster than you can say “debug.”
D.A. Pennebaker shared many of the above awards with Hegedus and was awarded International Documentary Association’s Career Achievement Award in 2005.
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Directed by: Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker
Release: September 15, 2010
MPAA: Not Rated
Runtime: 87 minutes