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'Top Chef' Meets 'Ratatouille' In 'Kings Of Pastry'

Game On: Chef Jacquy Pfeiffer of the French Pastry School in Chicago seeks to earn a place among des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France to be celebrated, in short, as one of the best of the best at his chosen craft. Paul Strabbing/First Run Features hide caption

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Paul Strabbing/First Run Features

Kings Of Pastry

  • Director: Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Running Time: 84 minutes

Not rated

(Recommended)

Watch Clips

'You Can't Cheat'

'The Dipping Of Chocolate'

A sweet antidote for the austerity blues, Kings of Pastry trots behind several finalists in the end stages of a quintessentially French competition — a contest to select an aristocracy among caterers to the discriminating sweet tooth.

Accompanied by a jazzy acoustic score that calls to mind the late, great Stephane Grapelli, this contented little trifle of a film focuses on Chicago-based pastry chef and teacher Jacquy Pfeiffer as he returns to his native Alsace to practice the baking and presentation of a wedding cake (and related pastries) to a panel of judges. They will decide how many competitors will score the coveted red, white and blue collars awarded to des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France — the MOFs, or the Best Craftsmen of France.

Filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker may be a touch credulous in buying into the myth of French gustatory self-restraint. When even the unassuming Pfeiffer weighs in on the topic, claiming that "'all you can eat' doesn't exist in France," it's worth bearing in mind that France is the second-biggest market worldwide for McDonald's. (And that the burly chef himself gives every appearance of being a well-fed fellow.)

Yet there's no doubting the long traditions of family and community artisanship that go into making these confections, from tiny cream puffs that look like fried eggs perched atop puff-pastry volcanoes to chewy great ribbons of marzipan and lollipops with witches' hats to towering, complicated sugar sculptures — part science, part architecture, and every one of them a work of lovingly elaborated art. You may gasp when a scrumptious-looking pink mousse goes into the trash can after one mouthful, but when the cooking coach says too much sugar, a would-be MOF takes it on the chin, or else.

Hard At Work: Pfeiffer and his mentor, Sebastien Canonne — note that Canonne already wears the tricolor Meilleurs collar — prove that serious pastry chefs are anything but cream puffs. Paul Strabbing/First Run Features hide caption

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Paul Strabbing/First Run Features

Kings of Pastry doesn't slight the contest, which like any other is primarily about winning. But Hegedus and Pennebaker, a husband-and-wife team known for their political documentaries and concert movies — Pennebaker's 1967 Bob Dylan tour picture, Don't Look Back, remains a classic of music-documentary filmmaking — understand that behind any race worth running is a whole lot of process. Kings of Pastry is about the craft, the teaching and learning, the collaborative work, the tedium, the heartbreak and emotional backbone it takes to make something lovely, even if that something is destined to disappear down a gullet in seconds — and even if the maker ends up a noble failure.

Most of all, Kings of Pastry is about patience — the patience that goes into making a beautiful wedding cake; the parallel patience it takes to track that process in cinema verite. Which means hanging out, watching and waiting until there's enough footage to catch both the rhythms of a way of life and the moments of drama that define or transform it.

Sure enough, in the final round one of the contestants suffers a setback that may spell disaster for him (the only women in this movie are helpmeets, including one chocolatiere hovering shyly behind her spouse), but is manna to the filmmakers' instinct for theater.

Far from milking the moment, though, they use it to illustrate the arbitrariness innate in any judgment of talent and the critical role of dumb luck in sealing a contestant's fate. Trust me, the outcome is not what you think.

It was a Frenchman, Jean-Paul Sartre, who brought us the news that life has no meaning other than the meanings we create for ourselves. Watching the film, we come to understand what it means to these grown Frenchmen, each with his army of unsung helpers, to expend their energies, their time and their passion on crafting beautiful ephemera that may or may not gain them entry into an arcane club most of the world has never heard of. In the end, Kings of Pastry is less about professionalism than it is about the satisfaction that comes from making something as perfect as it can be.

And in that sense, the movie has less in common with Top Chef than it has with Ratatouille, an animated picture about a lowly rat who becomes an artist of the kitchen. On a double bill with that wonderful Pixar movie about the democracy of excellence, Kings of Pastry would earn two thumbs up from the Roger Ebert of cuisine himself — Anton Ego. (Recommended)