Sixteen of France’s top pastry chefs compete for the ultimate accolade, the collar of the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (best craftsmen of France), in “Kings of Pastry,” from esteemed documakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus (“The War Room”). Both competition and exam, the MOF trials take place every four years and involve three exhausting days concocting 40 different recipes in a race against the clock. Building up to the tension-filled final cook-off, the helmers introduce a trio of top candidates, observing their training methods and motivations. Tasty pic could find specialty theatrical dates on its way to broadcast.
Working in their typical cinema-verite style, husband-and-wife team Pennebaker and Hegedus establish the prestige of the blue, white and red collar and the importance of the competition (which here takes place under the patronage of French President Nicolas Sarkozy) with a series of quick shots and onscreen titles.
The finalist receiving the most screen time is Jacquy Pfeiffer, one of the founders of the French Pastry School in Chicago. His business partner, Sebastien Cannone, previously earned his collar and is one of the judges.
The camera also follows Luxembourg baker Regis Lazard, a second-time finalist, whose first competition ended in catastrophe when he tripped and his sugar sculpture, or bijou, broke into bits. And from Valence, there’s the obviously talented Philippe Rigollot, pastry chef from Maison Pic, recipient of three Michelin stars.
Working side by side in an immaculate Lyons test kitchen, the chefs produce everything from perfect cream puffs to the immense and immensely fragile bijoux while under the scrutiny of a team of judges. They are rated for taste and artistry, as well as for the neatness of their workstations.
As the helmers observe the mental, physical and emotional toll the competition exacts on the contestants and their families, the film becomes gripping, even for non-foodies. It’s not revealing too much to say that a disaster precipitates some of the pic’s most affecting moments.
Given what seems like unprecedented access to the very masculine world of the French patissier, Pennebaker and Hegedus get their subjects to reveal a few trade secrets as well as personal aspirations. As their calm camera glides over the chefs’ almost-too-beautiful-to-eat creations, viewers share their awe.
The helmers’ pacey editing and a jazzy score of Django Reinhardt tunes also make the pic easy to digest.