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Chris Hedegus and D.A. Pennebaker are documentarians most well-known for their 1993 film “The War Room,” which followed the first Clinton presidential campaign. This time, they’re tackling a subject even more important than global politics: French pastry.
Every four years, the French government gives out awards for the “Meilleurs Ouvriers de France” (roughly the “best craftsmen of France”), known as the “MOF.” Originally intended as a way to elevate people who worked with their hands in the eyes of a country known for idolizing intellectuals, the MOF for pastry (patisserie) has turned into a sort of culinary Olympics; it happens only every four years, takes months of grueling preparation and, as you might imagine, only the strong survive.
Hedegus and Pennebaker follow Jacquy Pfeiffer, a MOF contender and head of Chicago’s French Pastry School, on his journey to the competition in Lyon. Through his weeks of preparation we are introduced to many other chefs, some of whom have already attained their MOF, and are helping Pfeiffer perfect his obscenely complicated recipes in an old farmhouse. This is cooking like you’ve never seen before: Pfeiffer spends his days pulling ribbon candy, forming melted sugar in iron molds and blowing sugar sculptures using glassblowing techniques. It’s incredibly visually impressive, and the directors take care to give the audience enough to feast their eyes on without being overwhelming or intrusive.
After watching Pfeiffer’s preparations and being introduced to several other MOF competitors, it quickly becomes clear that this film is not the sort of food-porn you can take home with you and try out in your kitchen. Unlike “Julie and Julia” (or even “I Am Love”), the food in “Kings of Pastry” is not meant to be eaten, only ogled and admired as a work of art. Indeed, after a dry run on a complicated spherical cake, Pfeiffer takes a taste only to throw the remainder in the trash. Everyone in my theater moaned in horror.
This attitude towards food may be particular to elite chefs—or to the French—but it brings up another important facet of the film: all the chefs, both those in the competition and those judging it, are male. The food is seen as art, not as nourishment. Not once do we actually observe anyone in the competition eating anything—it’s as though their focus on superhuman cooking can only be achieved by denying themselves the carnal pleasure of actually consuming what they create. Though this attitude is a little off-putting, especially in the context of America’s current Julia Child revival, the film overall is compelling and highly enjoyable. “Kings of Pastry” doesn’t take itself too seriously, even if most of its subjects do.
“Kings of Pastry” is currently playing at Film Forum in NYC. It opens in limited release September 24th, with an expanded release in early October.