Subjects Shine in ‘Kings of Pastry’

(2009) directors Chris Hegedus, D. A. Pennebaker

Kings of Pastry is a documentary that focuses on several pastry chefs who yearn for and compete for the Meilleur Ouvrier de France in the category of Pastry-making and candy-making, an elite tradesperson award in France acknowledging a prestigious status in the field. For the film, unlike so many popular food preparation television shows, it’s not a winner-take-all scenario. Each of the chefs may pass the rigorous three day examination and become honored with the medal and the “collar” that denotes them as the best of the best. But, certainly, not everyone succeeds.

The film primarily focuses on chef Jacquy Pfeiffer, who runs a French Pastry school in Chicago. He’s a good-natured, hard-working chef, who is striving for his first attempt at the award. The film also spends time with two other French pastry chefs vying for glory in the competition, for which 16 are selected for the final trial by fire. Each of the three is an affable family man, a professional chef in good standing, but for each of them, this is the ultimate badge of respect in their field and is something that they want very, very much.

Over the three days, they will have to prepare a series of presentations including a wedding cake and a sugar sculpture, and in watching the artistry and expertise of the men as they prepare for the event, one becomes keenly aware that they are also plainly honest about their criticism and their potentials of success and failure. One of the chefs, who is going for his third try for the award, recounts how he had a great shot in the prior attempt (the tests are run every four years), but in carrying his sugar sculpture to the presentation table, he slipped, it crashed, and was as shattered as his hopes for success.

You know that someone’s sugar sculpture is going to break. Someone’s world is going to be likewise shattered.

And directors Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker manage to get you pulling for all three of the men. They’re all nice guys, and seem very talented and capable. When the final awardees are announced, even the head judge sheds tears while reading the limited list of winners, absent some of the names the audience is undoubtedly pulling for at this point. You want them all to have made it.

Pennebaker has been making documentaries since the 1950s and reached great fame for films such as the Bob Dylan film Don’t Look Back (1967), Monterey Pop (1968), and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973). He began working with Hegedus on the 1993 film The War Room, which focused on James Carville and George Stephanopolus and the way they worked around the clock to help Bill Clinton win his first term in office. They are adept at zoning in on the story in a variety of subject.

It’s typical of me, but probably odd on the whole but I don’t have a sweet tooth, so nothing that was created in the film had any appeal as food. I had a girlfriend who became a pastry chef and many of her experiments, of which she would taste one piece, would have to be pawned off on friends. And I am not a food aficionado, nor do I watch the popular food competition shows, the cooking shows, nor the Food Network. But I certainly could appreciate the artistry and craft and dedication on display. I wonder how appetizing these constructs are for the average viewer.

As art goes, the sugar sculptures are gaudy constructions of kitsch and abstraction (in my opinion), whose prime charm is in the delicacy of the medium. The amount of talent it takes to make one pristine, luminous rose or a ribbon or a spun curlicue, it’s easy to appreciate. And those constructions are indeed delicate. And they do shatter. And one major catastrophe brings about the film’s best moment, when the fellow chefs, the critics, the jury console a distraught chef whose moment of glory shatters in the form of a pile of broken sugary pieces that are swept up and dumped in the trash.

Oddly enough, a film that focuses its eye upon these meticulous perfectionists, the film itself is not a work of art on its own. Shot on digital video, with a lot of handheld camera following the workers around and interviewing them, the film is just next to a student production when it comes to its presentation of text on the screen. The film opens with some text about the event, cuts between locations, between the days and times of the events but with a look that is just plain cheap-looking.

The film’s strength is in the story, in the recording, the editing and the piecing together, and it’s an enjoyable and interesting narrative. But it does seem odd that the film has such an unpolished, low-budget feel when regarding a subject of such rich detail, meticulousness, craftsmanship and perfection.

But maybe that’s just me. I actually thought of a number of people who I thought would enjoy this film, and I think that’s a notable takeaway. And I do believe that I will recommend it to others.

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