If you’ve ever eaten any glorious pastries in France, you know what works of art they can be. I’ve always had an appreciation for French pastry, but after watching the documentary “Kings of Pastry” a few weeks ago, I’ll never bite into a pastry in France without having a more profound reverence for the art and skill of pâtisserie. The film ran for a week in late September/early October at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago to sold-out crowds. For those who weren’t able to see it, the good news is that the film is returning for another run, from December 3-9.
The film takes you on a behind-the-scenes journey of the demanding and grueling efforts French pastry chefs go through to prepare and compete for Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF) (One of the Best Craftspeople in France), held three times a decade to recognize the best professionals in a host of trades such as pastrymaking, breadmaking, cheesemaking, woodworking, artisanal ironwork, textile design, glassmaking, artistic metalwork, and ceramics. The awarding of the MOF started after World War I in 1924 to recognize exceptional skills, and by extension, also helps to preserve the value of artisan trades in an increasingly industrializing world.
“Kings of Pastry” documents the months—and years—of preparation some of the finalists go through to vie for the MOF. The film principally follows the life of Jacquy Pfeiffer, a co-founder of The French Pastry School in Chicago, who returns to France in 2007 for the competition. Some of the finalists are returning for a repeat try.
For three long days, we get an insider’s view never allowed before of the chefs intensely working through a dizzying number of categories of pastry as a jury of MOFs and other accomplished pastry chefs watch every move by every contestant as they create wedding cakes, chocolates, chocolate sculptures, ice creams, sugar ribbons, plated desserts, small pastries, breakfast pastries, and more. Not only are the final results judged, but so are a pastry chef’s methods, creativity, maturity, and respect for the traditions of the profession.
As the clock ticks, the pressure to produce perfect creations mounts as sessions are timed to the second. We then watch as judges taste and score the results. The final presentations are stunning, gorgeous, and irresistible-looking. I was gripping my seat and my heart was pounding as the audience learns what is expected and witnesses what unfolds. It’s all real-life stuff. When the winners are announced, and later recognized by President Nicolas Sarkozy in a ceremony at the Élysée (presidential residence), you feel as though you’ve just watched Olympians win their gold. In this case, however, they earn the coveted blue, white, and red striped collar, which they wear for a lifetime.
I was fortunate to meet the film’s creator and producer, Flora Lazar, at a dinner party two years ago, when she had recently made a career change from Harvard and Columbia PhD grad working in public policy to a French Pastry School graduate (Flora Confections). It was then when I learned about her project, and this past month was
thrilled to see her idea come to fruition by filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, (of “The War Room” and “Don’t Look Back”). “This is a film not just about pastry, which you know I adore,” says Lazar, “but about work, doing things well, and caring passionately.” If a slice of reality coated in a lovely sugar glaze pleases your palate, then this film is sure to delight.