Monday, December 6, 2010
Producer: Frazer Pennebaker and Flora Lazar
Documentary, 1 hour 24 minutes
English, and French with English subtitles
“All-you-can-eat -- that doesn’t exist in France. The idea is to eat the best possible food, but in small quantities.” So says Alsace-born pastry chef Jacquy Pfeiffer, who runs the French Pastry School in Chicago with Sébastien Canonne. Pfeiffer manages to become one of the 16 finalists in a three-day competition to be one of a small handful who are named Meilleur Ouvrier de France (Best Craftsman of France). The competition in Lyon, France is held every four years like the Olympics and winners earn the privilege of wearing a tricolour collar -- red, white and blue like the French flag.
With Kings of Pastry, veteran documentarians Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker (The War Room) follow Pfeiffer and two other finalists (Régis Lazard and Philippe Rigollot) in their quest to achieve this title. All three are very likable and are already masters of their craft. But the goal of being named M.O.F. is a monumental challenge in which they not only have to be great chefs, but also chemists, architects and athletes.
We get to see them make all manner of tasty sweets, from delicate cookies and lollipops to massive wedding cakes. Not only do they have to be delicious, but they have to look aesthetically pleasing and they must be made quickly.
Hegedus and Pennebaker successfully capture a verité, fly-on-the-wall approach to the contest. In a way, this film is much like the "reality" TV cooking shows that have become ubiquitous. That's both good and bad, as its dull TV look doesn't flatter the often visually spectacular creations.
But what sets this apart is that not only are the competitors exceptionally talented, but the judges are all M.O.F.s themselves. They not only know what it's like to compete, but you get the feeling that each of them knows how everything was made and could probably make it themselves if they had to. The president of the jury himself says he had to try three times before being named M.O.F. The reality shows on the other hand are too often judged by celebrities or critics who aren't chefs and don't know enough about what they're tasting.
Also, the story has a natural dramatic arc with the finalists training feverishly before undergoing the tense, grueling competition itself. This doesn't need to have contrived drama imposed on the proceedings as the TV shows regularly do. Some moments have a surprising emotional impact, and there is more than one moment where even the judges get teary-eyed.
At a minimum, this film will give you an appreciation for the art of the pastry chef. You'll be floored by the immense possibilities that one can make with flour and sugar. But don't see this on an empty stomach. And you'll probably want to treat yourself to a nice little dessert afterwards.