'Kings of Pastry': In France, making pastry is the sport of champions
I guess it figures that in France, pastry chefs are as decorated as war heroes. The best of the best are awarded the prestigious MOF -- short for the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France -- a fancy tricolore collar proudly worn by the winners of a grueling three-day pastry-making marathon held once every four years.
The French clearly treat it just as seriously as they do the World Cup. Somehow two of our finest documentary filmmakers, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, managed to get access to the whole competition, following a trio of MOF aspirants as they prepared for the decathlon of pastry creation, which is held in such high esteem in France that the winners are feted by French President Nicolas Sarkozy himself, who is seen embracing the victors and pronouncing the idea that manual skill is any less valued than intellectual skill as "morally scandalous."
The result is "Kings of Pastry," which aired on the BBC earlier this year and is on view Saturday at 7:15 p.m. at the Los Angeles Film Festival. And I have to say that it's a total delight, even if you're like me and don't have much of a sweet tooth. The French take their pastry seriously, so we get to watch the chefs -- the main focus is on Jacquy Pfeiffer, founder of the French Pastry School of Chicago -- construct all sorts of elaborate confections, including towering, skyscraper-high cakes and sugar sculptures that look uncannily like Frank Gehry concert halls and museums, except that they're made out of caramel, cream, butter and raspberry puree.
What makes the film so irresistible is its lighter-than-air tone, which allows us to marvel at the seriousness of the chefs' craft without losing sight of the inherent absurdity of pastry chefs approaching the design of a cream puff as if they were scientists working on an atom bomb. Pennebaker (perhaps best known for his Bob Dylan documentary "Don't Look Back") and Hegedus ("The War Room") are totally unobtrusive, but always on hand for the most dramatic moments, including the spectacular collapse of one of the chef's sugar sculptures in the midst of the three-day competition, when the clock is ticking and the judges are all hovering, inspecting the details of each chef's work. It's a testament to the gravity of the situation that when the sculpture goes down, the judges seem to shed almost as many tears as the bedraggled contestant.
The filmmakers are also especially alert to the inherent humor in a world where men (and yes, the chefs and the judges are all men) display an almost messianic devotion to such an odd, inherently ephemeral art form. Before the MOF competition is held, the contestants do time trials, like race car drivers, seeing how fast they can prepare an elaborate recipe. They even talk like they're at a NASCAR event. When Pfeiffer is 45 minutes behind after his first 90 minutes of work, his coach glumly explains: "He never ran the race in his head and he went -- poof -- right into the wall."
It's also a kick to hear the chefs' coaches -- MOF winners themselves -- critique all of these absurd looking creations, debating their color schemes and sugar content. Gravely assessing one of his test recipes, Pfeiffer sighs: "I already know what [my coach] will say -- that there isn't enough nougatine."
I won't give away what happens in the final competition, except to say that along with the thrills and spills the finals produce something of a surprise winner. If you can't make it to the festival screening, make sure you put this film in your Netflix queue. It's a marvelous study in just how much pastries can matter to the people who can make them. In a quiet moment before the competition, Pfeiffer admits that before he goes to sleep at night, he's constantly nagging his wife to tell him that the MOFs have been canceled so he won't have bad dreams about them every night.
Watch for yourself:
Photo from "Kings of Pastry." Credit: Pennebaker Hegedus Films.