You won't see any cupcakes here. No whoopie pies. Heck, not even any American pies. In Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker's excellent documentary Kings of Pastry, what you will see is a peek into the competitive high-level French competition for membership in the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (or MOF), an exclusive group of pastry chefs distinguished by "the collar" they receive as winners. The film begins at a time when seventy contestants have been narrowed to sixteen finalists and each man (apparently no woman has ever competed) spends four years preparing for the intense three-day competition.
At first, it may sound like a film you'd only be into if you appreciated French pastry or cooking competitions. But Hegedus and Pennebaker manage to draw you in quickly and don't let go until the very end. Like most good documentaries, you connect with the characters and begin to understand each man's motivation for competing as you get a glimpse into their home and work life. In this sense, you become invested in the outcome of the competition just like the competitor's own spouses or children. In addition to rooting for each contestant, you'll find yourself puzzling over the level of commitment it takes to prepare. There is so much to give up: time with family and kids, being fully present at work, and a normal social life. One of the contestants insists that when he and his wife were remodeling their home, they had to add a pastry workshop in the basement for him to practice and prepare for the competition.
I found myself rooting for Jacquy Pfeiffer, an Alsace-born, Chicago-based chef who has both determination and drive but also humility and perspective. While working on an elaborate wedding cake, he smiles and says "If you whistle it works better." While he may not be as piercingly intense as the other contestants, Pfeiffer is obviously immensely talented and confident that he's a sure contender. Here he is shaping his chocolate sculpture:
As you can probably imagine, not all goes as planned at the competition. To avoid any misteps, each contestant does a three-day trial run to try and work out the kinks. Sugar flower work for eight hours at a time without stopping for food or much drink? Check. Putting the finishing touches on an elaborate sugar sculpture only to break it when making an adjustment? Check. The stakes are obviously high. No amount of practice can prepare each man for how he'll perform on any given day. And the judges, having each gone through the same competition at one point in their lives, relate and sympathize with this pressure. When reading the name of the winners, the judge is obviously shaken and has difficulty saying the names out loud. By this point, they've witnessed sixteen sure winners, so it must be unimaginably difficult to announce that three years of one's life have been spent without anything to take back to show for it. One gentleman in the film is competing for his fourth time: sixteen years of constant preparation!
As the head of the jury says "Your mind has to work as hard as your hands." And this is, I think, at the crux of the fascination with this film: it's difficult for many of us to imagine this kind of focused and relentlessly enduring determination towards any one thing for years upon years. It's not just an interest, a hobby, or a passion. It seems to be more of a fire--something each finalist feels like they must do. And by the end of the film, you'll be surprised at who earns the "collar" and who is ultimately sent home to consider competing again or throwing in the towel. It's a touching, emotional, and thought-provoking film. Whether you're interested in food films or not, the topic at hand isn't really what this movie is about. It's really about heart. And that's where we all meet at the same table.