Film: “Kings of Pastry”

June 15, 2011 § 3 Comments

Those California days slipped away so quickly. Driving along the 405 under the bright sun has turned into stuffy subway rides. Freshly-laundered clothes is now a luxury, which I can only indulge in doing a couple times a month as opposed to a couple times a week at home. Lounging around the house and cooking with my sister has become lounging around the apartment and cooking occasionally with my roommates and boyfriend. Perhaps, not everything has changed.

It has already been two weeks since I flew from suburban Valencia to New York City. Now, I’m back to a different kind of grind. The job hunt. Unemployed and looking, I feel as if every second not searching for a job on Mediabistro or preparing for an informational interview is time wasted (though I do know that’s not the case).  Still. Sometimes, I just need to get out of my head and relax, which is what I did a couple nights ago.

With a glass of Chardonnay sprinkled with sliced strawberries, I sat on the couch beside my roommate to watch D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ 2009 documentary, “Kings of Pastry.” The documentary opens with a picturesque landscape of the Jardin du Luxembourg and tantalizes the viewer with a seemingly nonchalant introduction. “In France…”  it starts off, but then reality settles in. “If you want to be a great chef, you want to wear the collar,” the text continues amidst footage of famed Lyon chef Paul Bocuse and French President Nicolas Sarkozy congratulating the elite few, their necks crowned in the coveted blue, white and red collar. “But, few win it.”

Jacquy Pfeiffer with his mentor, Sebastien Canonne, taken from phfilms.com

Jacquy Pfeiffer with his mentor, Sebastien Canonne, taken from phfilms.com

“Kings of Pastry” follows three of the 16 finalists as they prepare and compete in France’s prestigious, yet grueling pastry competition to win the title (and collar) of des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF), the Best Craftsmen in France. Chefs spend years preparing for this three-day exam, the Olympics of the pastry world (fittingly, they only take place every four years) and each has his own story. The young Philippe Rigollot cut his teeth at Maison Pic, the only three-star restaurant in France owned by a woman. Regis Lazardcame from Luxembourg for another shot after he broke his sugar sculpture at the last competition. Jacquy Pfeiffer founded the French Pastry School in Chicago and returns to his native France to bring home the collar.

Regis Lazard perfecting his work, taken from slantmagazine.com

Regis Lazard perfecting his work, taken from slantmagazine.com

Much of the film shows these aspiring MOFs hunched over piping sugary confections and carefully arranging delicate bijou sugar sculptures while MOF judges peer over and inspect their work. Throughout the MOF competition, talented chefs bow tall toques, sometimes in tears while others in exhaustion. Once the cakes are placed and the competition is over, chefs with their wives, parents and children wander through the sweets-laden gallery featuring their prized MOF entries and tribute to the craft of French pastry-making. Then, comes the emotional naming of the new MOFs by chef Philippe Urraca, the head of the MOF pastrycompetition.

However, “Kings of Pastry” is more than just cream puffs and crying men. NPR’s Ella Taylor remarked, “Kings of Pastry is about the craft, the teaching and learning, the collaborative work, the tedium, the heartbreak and emotional backbone it takes to make something lovely, even if that something is destined to disappear down a gullet in seconds — and even if the maker ends up a noble failure.” Rather, the film is about the art behind pastry, thus “Kings of Pastry” is an appreciation of that.

My roommate remarked that the whole process of MOF judging is much like viewing art where museum- and gallery-goers stand in front of a painting, inspect the details of the piece and mull over aloud about the inspiration, implications and success of the work. I’m most reminded of this art appreciation during one scene in “Kings of Pastry.” In the middle of the documentary, Pfeiffer’s MOF mentors arrange a late night timed test for him and, once finished, promptly taste the struggling chef’s éclairs. After cutting Pfeiffer’s éclair in half, they sit silently and slowly savor the cream-filled sweet. They not only evaluate the visual aesthetic with their eyes, like in art appreciation, but have that added dimension of taste. Perhaps that might be something artists will catch on to. “I have nothing to add,” one says after swallowing. Said like a true art critic.

 

In case you’re curious, “Kings of Pastry” will be aired next Tuesday, June 21st on PBS.

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