The world of dessert isn’t always a just one.
In Kings of Pastry, a new documentary in which the ironies are unfortunately more bitter than sweet, filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back, The War Room), show viewers that the preparation of the world’s best baked goods merit as much studious deliberation as any intellectual, legal or artistic pursuit.
The film follows Jacquy Pfeiffer, a chef and co-founder of a Chicago pastry school who travels to his native France to compete in that country’s oldest and most prestigious pastry competition, the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF).
The MOF is no reality show cooking competition. The three-day event takes place every three years and is judged by legendary chefs that are culinary superstars in France. Winners of the MOF are identifiable by their special tri-color chef collars – an honor bestowed by the French president.
Founded in 1924, the competition intended to elevate artisanal skill to artistic heights on par with academic and creative excellence. Competitors spend years designing elaborate, architectural sugar sculptures that are more than culinary delights: they’re feats of engineering and physics. Pfieffer even studied glass-blowing to prepare for the MOF.
In an early scene, President Nicolas Sarkozy calls the tendency to undervalue vocational skills in favor of intellectualism ‘morally scandalous’ and ‘economically inefficient.’
‘It’s not the idea of the best you can do,’ says Hegedus. ‘But the best that can be done that tends to be inspiring [for] a lot of people, especially people in [the culinary] field. It seems to encourage them to work the hard hours that they do.’
‘Working with your hands building something is as interesting to do as working with your head and trying to write a bad book,’ adds Pennebaker, who took up carpentry after earning an engineering degree from Yale. ‘People all said, ‘Well, you can’t do that after you get a degree from Yale.’ People don’t expect to do manual labor in their lives. They look down on it like mowing the lawn or something and that’s too bad because it’s a very satisfying thing to do.’
Pennebaker and Hegedus decided to make the film after a producer friend who was studying at Chicago’s French Pastry School mentioned that one of the school’s founders was going to compete in the MOF. Intrigued, the couple traveled to Chicago to meet Pfieffer and were impressed by his work ethic and charmed by his supportive family.
There was one hitch: the MOF’s organizers hadn’t granted permission to shoot the competition, which had never been filmed before, making it practically impossible for the directors to secure financing in advance. So, they put up their own money, packed up their cameras and flew to France with Pfieffer. They met two more competitors, Regis Lazard and Philippe Rigollot, and finally got the green light the day before the competition began.
After the shoot, the directors secured financing from European and UK TV broadcasters, including the BBC, and opted for a theatrical run in the United States. A DVD release will follow in February or March, Hegedus says.
‘It’s all done in terms of home movie exigency,’ says Pennebaker of the pair’s filming aesthetic. ‘Whatever the home movie did is kind of what we end up doing. Flooding the place with lights or having two people do scenes again are things we don’t really do. That’s a different kind of filmmaking. For us, this is the style we’ve pretty much always observed. We don’t know how to do anything else.’
Kings of Pastry has an unobtrusive, observational feel in line with the cinema verité style the duo is known for. The shoot was an exhausting one for the directors, who, by day three of the MOF, were confined by the organizers to a small, taped-off square in the kitchen in order to minimize stress on the increasingly frantic chefs.
‘The air in the kitchens as the days went on just got more and more tense,’ recalls Hegedus. ‘I was so surprised at how quiet it was. Everybody is concentrating so much you could just hear a pin drop. I was actually the camera that was shooting when we had our big disaster in the kitchen and it was incredible because first all the chefs looked up, and then they looked down and continued working.’
The ‘big disaster,’ which won’t be revealed here for those who haven’t yet seen the film, is sure to be its most-talked about moment. It’s also one that ironically underscores how good filmmaking, much like fine pastry making, relies on luck as much as it requires skill.
‘That’s an amazing moment in the theater,’ says Pennebaker. ‘You can hear it out on the street – the gasp!’
Kings of Pastry is now playing in theaters across the United States and Canada. Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker will present the film at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox on Thurs, Dec. 2 at 7 p.m. Visit kingsofpastry.com for a complete screening schedule.
Photo by Chris Hegedus: (L) Chef Jacquy Pfeiffer; (R) Chef Sebastien Canonne. Copyright: Kings of Pastry