The 'Kings Of Pastry' Are No Cream Puffs

Every four years, France's top pastry chefs gather in Lyon for the World Cup of pastry-making at the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France. The new film, Kings of Pastry, follows three long days of chocolate sculptures, cream puffs that look like crown jewels and grown men crying over cracked sugar. Host Liane Hansen speaks to filmmakers Don Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus about their documentary.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Every four years, France's top pastry chefs gather in Lyon for the world cup of pastry making - the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France or MOF. The MOF is three long days of chocolate sculptures, cream puffs that look like crown jewels and grown men crying over cracked sugar, all in the quest to become the best craftsman in France and wear the red, white and blue collar.

There's a new documentary about the MOF called "Kings of Pastry." The two directors, Chris Hegedus and Don Pennebaker join us from our New York bureau. Welcome to both of you. I should say welcome back.

Mr. DON PENNEBAKER (Co-Director, "Kings of Pastry"): Thank you.

Ms. CHRIS HEGEDUS (Co-Director, "Kings of Pastry"): Thank you. We're so happy to be here.

HANSEN: When did you first hear about the MOF?

Ms. HEGEDUS: Well, we first heard about the MOF from a friend of ours, Fleur Lazar(ph), who graduated from the French Pastry School in Chicago. And she told us about one of the founders of the school, Jacquy Pfieffer, and how he was practicing for this epic competition, the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France. And his business co-partner, Sebastien Canonne, had already competed in this contest and had the coveted collar. So, the stakes were incredibly high for Jacquy.

(Soundbite of movie, "Kings of Pastry")

Mr. JACQUY PFEIFFER (Co-Founder, French Pastry School): My girlfriend, Rachel, had - we have a Rachel, before I go to sleep, she tells me - and I told her to do that because it does work - I said to her, you have to tell me that fashion called and something had happened and the MOF is actually cancelled -cancelled. And if she does this - but she has to do it for real, you know, not just like, oh, by the way, it's cancelled, then it doesn't grab on.

But if she tells me something happened, the MOF is cancelled, then I do not dream about the MOF at night. Because that's my nightmare is I'm at the MOF and I'm competing, right, and there always something goes wrong.

Mr. PENNEBAKER: The whole drama just seemed very clear to me. It was like an innocent play. Suddenly, he was going to go take these risks and go to France and practice, whatever that was. And we were just going to follow along and watched what happened.

HANSEN: This is an unusual competition, mainly because it does happen every four years. But it's also called an exam. Now, what does that mean? How is it both an exam and a contest?

Ms. HEGEDUS: Well, the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France was created about 100 years ago to preserve the quality of the artisan trades and to elevate their status in society. So, it's almost like getting a law degree or something like that, but, you know, through a competition. The MOF, as it's called, covers about 175 different artisan trades.

And it's, you know, everything from carpentry to flower arranging to taxidermy, you know. But the culinary arts and especially the pastry competition are probably the most rigorous because they represent some of the most important artisan trades in French society.

HANSEN: Yeah. I'm speaking to Chris Hegedus and Don Pennebaker, directors of the new documentary, "Kings of Pastry."

We do get involved with three chefs who are competing - Jacquy, Regis and Philippe, and they are coached by MOF titleholders in the days leading up to the finals. What is the training like? Did you observe that there's as much pressure as there would be on athletes, say?

Ms. HEGEDUS: The MOF is really a lifelong award and people train for it their whole lives. I mean, they start - most of these chefs apprentice when they are very young, because that's really what it's like if you're going to go for excellence. It's hard work and it's a life's work.

Mr. PENNEBAKER: French chefs are kind of born in a cooking atmosphere. And they don't have to think the way we do about how many cups go into something. They just do it. But at the same time, it's not by chance. They do things exactly the way they did them two or three hundred years ago because that worked.

HANSEN: I was surprised to see how emotional a lot of these men got. I mean, even the head of the jury, when he was reading out the list, he seemed happy for the people who got the blue, white and red collar, but he's crying. And it seems like he's crying for the ones that didn't make it.

Mr. PENNEBAKER: I think that's a sense of the MOF that you get, which is it's not so much a competition for a winner but it's a kind of a band of people who support each other in many ways. I mean, you could see that there were more judges than there were participants. The judges were, in every way, trying to help the people to pass.

Because in a way, the competition was each person with himself, rather than who cooked the best biscuit.

HANSEN: Right. I mean, the honor is the award of that collar, which it's mentioned in the film that any chef that tries to wear that collar without being an actual MOF can go to jail.

Mr. PENNEBAKER: Yeah. They're very serious about their bread. I mean, ever since that famous remark about let them eat cake, they've taken bread very seriously.

HANSEN: Right. And cake, too. Some of those cakes were worthy of display, I mean, in an art museum. In fact, many of them were transported in these little display cases that would hold, you know, precious works of art.

Ms. HEGEDUS: Well, the competition is incredibly rigorous. I mean, it's a three-day competition and they're, you know, it's themed every year. And the theme for the year that we filmed was marriage or weddings. So, they had to create for a final buffet table all the type of products that you would have if you had, like, a three-day wedding.

(Soundbite of movie, "Kings of Pastry")

Mr. PFEIFFER: The sugar show pieces, the cream puffs, the brioche we have to make, the jam, the wedding cake - there's a wedding cake, plate of desserts. There's some tea pastries, chocolate candy, lollipops, chocolate sculpture, OK? There's about 40 different recipes.

Ms. HEGEDUS: Every minute is timed during these three days. And, you know, you can watch them slowly, you know, fall behind because of humidity or circumstance that has to do with the science of baking and, you know, try to catch up. And, you know, they're desperate by the end, and I think that's what makes, you know, this film and the film of the competition so incredibly intense.

HANSEN: All right. How much weight did you gain?

Mr. PENNEBAKER: We don't have to talk about that.

HANSEN: Well, all right then. Let me...

Ms. HEGEDUS: One of the perks.

HANSEN: Yeah. Then let me ask the question another way: did you get to sample any of the creations or the trial runs?

Mr. PENNEBAKER: Well, was the pope a Pole? I mean, come on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: It would be such a shame 'cause I have to admit, while watching the film I started getting hungry for macaron. I love those things. Did you find yourself rooting for, let's say, Jacquy 'cause you'd spent so much time following him?

Mr. PENNEBAKER: Well, sure. I mean, he was handing me little bits of stuff on the sly to eat. I think he was trying to gain my - but the problem was for three days and 10 hours each day, you were glued to a camera watching people do something and you had no idea what they were doing really. So, you were filming - it wasn't like filming a football game where you see somebody make a touchdown. They were doing - and you didn't know whether they were doing it well or not so well.

Ms. HEGEDUS: Yeah. You spend time filming these people who are so invested in something. I mean, it's their life's dream. And I think one of the interesting things about this story is that it had a lot of twists and turns and in some ways, you know, things kind of turned around in a very interesting way for us that we never expected.

HANSEN: And, you know, this is one where it really becomes a cliffhanger in the end.

Mr. PENNEBAKER: But, you know, the thing that makes these films work for us when we do them, we start off and it's like walking into a dark woods. You have no idea what you're really going to find or whether there'd even be a story. So, you're really in the hands of the gods. And the surprises, for us, was so much a part of what made the film, but yet, if you had to make one of these films and it all worked out perfectly, you'd really be disappointed.

HANSEN: Chris Hegedus and Don Pennebaker's new documentary film is called "Kings of Pastry," and they joined us from our studio in New York. Thank you both.

Ms. HEGEDUS: Thank you.

Mr. PENNEBAKER: Thank you.

HANSEN: "Kings of Pastry" opens September 24th in select cities with more openings in early October. You can read a review of the film on our website, NPR.org.

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