On DVD: Kings of Pastry

Kings of Pastry is a truly thrilling and informative look at the somewhat secretive and incestuous world of French patisserie - specifically, the pastry- and candy-making portion of the quadrennial Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF) competition among craftsmen in various disciplines. Acclaimed filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus (Don't Look Back, The War Room) follow three competitors as they prepare and compete in this high-pressure contest whose winners will forever hold the highest distinction in their field.

The film highlights Jacquy Pfeiffer, a French-born but Chicago-based pastry chef, who has a great emotional and professional investment in the competition (although this could easily be said of every other competitor, too). Jacquy has an American girlfriend and daughters, and must leave his adopted home for several weeks to practice prior to the MOF. We also meet Philippe Rigollot, a candy specialist whose work is inspired by his own children, and the somewhat blasé Regis Lazard, who is perhaps the least intensely motivated of the three.

The parameters of the competition are roughly as follows: Over a period of three days, sixteen contestants share kitchen space as they prepare approximately forty recipes of varying degrees of complexity. They include lollipops, chocolate candies, small cakes and tarts, a wedding cake, a large-scale dessert "sculpture," and a decorative piece entirely of sugar called a
bijou ("jewel"). Each of these concoctions is judged by a dozen or so prior MOF laureates, who turn them over in their mouths assessing the balance of ingredients, weight, texture, and of course flavor. Each chef has already prepared his (there are no female competitors) individual recipes for each item in advance; each day's activities are timed.

Pennebaker and Hegedus have captured real toil and drama in this story of obsessive, driven creative individuals. The many potential hazards of baking are addressed, including the quality of ingredients, timing, and atmospheric conditions. The fragility of the different pieces - especially the sugar sculptures - is an ongoing source of tension.

It's unfortunate that the visual style of the film doesn't complement the beauty of the MOFs' creations. It's shot in a particularly unattractive digital format that leaves the film looking less polished than a local news broadcast. Given the extraordinary filmography of the directors, the clumsiness of the presentation came as a surprise.

On balance, however,
Kings of Pastry is a fitting tribute to men of rare talent. It's an engrossing look at a rarefied and largely unknown world.

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