Sunday, December 5, 2010

Kings of Pastry

I went to the Balboa to see Kings of Pastry.

King of Pastry; documentary; directed by Chris Hegedus & D.A. Pennebaker; (2009) - Official Website

Kings of Pastry was preceded by a short film called Western Spaghetti.

Western Spaghetti; directed by PES - Official Website

Western Spaghetti was stop-action, claymation short about making spaghetti using pencils as spaghetti strands and candy corn as flames on a gas stovetop.

Kings of Pastry was directed by the duo who made The War Room (1993), a fascinating look into Bill Clinton's 1992 Presidential campaign. Kings of Pastry is about Un des Meilleurs Ouvrier de France (MOF), a quadrennial competition hed in France. It attracts the top pastry chefs in France to compete for the coveted Meilleurs Ouvrier de France, an award which entitles its recipients to wear a blue, white and red collar on their chef's smocks. According to one recipient, if a person wears the tri-color collar without having been awarded the MOF, he can be arrested. I don't know if that is fact or hyperbole.

The film mainly concentrated on Jacquy Pfeiffer, a native of France who now lives & work in the Chicago area as the founder and instructor of a pastry school. Seeing one of his colleagues receive the MOF, Pfeiffer embarks on the arduous process to win the award. If I recall correctly, he began preparing 18 months before the competition and took a leave of absence from his school six weeks prior to the competition. During that final period, he prepared at a bakery in Alsace which belonged to a childhood friend.

The key component of the MOF competition is a sugar sculpture event. The chefs make amazing works of art from crystallized sugar. As is show repeated these sculptures are very fragile. I gasped and groaned more than once when a sculpture came tumbling down.

Kings of Pastry follows a few other competitors but most of the screentime is devoted to Jacquy and his coterie of supporters which include his girlfriend, her children (one of the girls may have been his daughter), his assistand and fellow chefs and MOF winner who serve as his coaches. Indeed, the competition is more akin to a sporting event than cooking. Unlike the brassy Iron Chef television program or the combative Gordon Ramsay, the MOF and Jacquy are reserved and genteel. Jacquy never raises his voice or expresses his frustrations. He continually prepares for the competition although I don't recall seeing any of his practice pieces or confections in the actual competition.

The time constraints and unknowns require the participants to adapt to rules and judges (as well as mishaps). There were sixteen competitors in the MOF. It wasn't clear if those 16 had to qualify somehow for the event. Some of the competitor had failed previous MOFs. The 16 are not competing against each other but against the judges' subjective standards. It was possible but unlikely that all 16 would have received the MOF. I can't recall how many of the competitors received the award. Four to six, I believe. I won't say if Jacquy won so as not spoil the suspense.

The film was nice, just like Jacquy and all the competitors. An asshole in the group would have improved the film as it would lead some conflict and given the audience someone to root against. As it was, all the competitors and judges seemed like good guys which is a little surprising given how many there were and that they were French after all. Kings of Pastry had the look and feel of well-made PBS documentary which is where it will likely end up.

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