For professional pastry chefs, people participating in bake-offs in the privacy of their own kitchens, and the vast majority of us who simply consume the sweet stuff, “Kings of Pastry” is mandatory viewing.
A documentary with more life and suspense than many a swashbuckling saga, “Kings of Pastry” is an unusual, charming, funny, surprising and unexpectedly tense film about the competition for an award that’s the equivalent of the Medal of Honor for chefs.
It’s the French tricolor collar worn by Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, or Best Craftsmen of France. Gaining the MOF title takes not only talent, hard work, experience and luck, it also involves following a process that’s only understandable after watching the movie.
It’s explained, at least in part, by a scene in which the participants — famous, important chefs — are in tears when a fellow contestant’s creation falls apart.
As to the importance of the MOF, French President Nicolas Sarkozy makes a heartfelt speech about what it all means.
As a bonus, in just 84 minutes, the film teaches viewers more about masterly baking than they could pick up from years of book-learning. It also reveals why all-you-can-eat buffets don’t exist in France.
Seventy candidates are accepted for the contest, with 16 competing in the three-day finale in Lyon, which is chronicled in candid, behind-the-scenes close-ups.
But the rich story starts long before, as chef Jacquy Pfeiffer, co-founder of Chicago’s French Pastry School, prepares for the contest first at home, then journeys back to his childhood home of Alsace.
The film’s depiction of the contestants’ family lives, and how they’re stressed by the intensity of reaching for their goal, make the story both human and extraordinary. Who knew that it could be so tense to decide between orange and hazelnut cream puffs, or about the wisdom of keeping things basic, but dressing them up, “yet without too much foo-foo”?
Adding an athletic touch to the contest, the chefs race the clock to create their entries and then must hand-carry them — including fragile sugar sculptures — through a series of rooms to a final buffet area without shattering them.
How long can you, the audience, hold your breath?
Starring Jacquy Pfeiffer, Regis Lazard, Christophe Michalak, Philippe Rigollot
Written and directed by Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker
Running time 1 hour 24 minutes