With KINGS OF PASTRY, master documentarians D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus turn their camera onto Franceís Meilluer Ouvrier de France competition, and in observing this esoteric discipline, pastry-making at a level of accomplishment that is a marvel of refinement, reveals more than the best way to spin sugar or to recover from a seemingly insurmountable catastrophe. The premise is pastry, but the story is about having a dream, and giving oneís all for it. On a visceral level, they discover the essence of what it means on a gut level to be willing to struggle, sacrifice, and commit to the work required with no guarantee that it will pay off. Ever.
Succeeding at the six-week competition, held once ever four years, is to earn the right to wear the red, white, and blue collar. Itís is a mark of distinction easily overlooked by those who do not understand its significance, yet it is the distinguishes the wearer as having achieved a level of skill and mental acuity that is so jealously guarded that to wear one without having earned it is to invite legal action. That may be a joke on the part of one subject under scrutiny here, but the strong emotion behind it is genuine.
The Maitre de Ouvrier, or M.O.P. is more exam than competition, meaning that theoretically everyone who has won the right to compete at this level can win the collar. In practice, it doesnít happen. Some take it several time before passing. Some take it several times and donít pass. Some compete once and canít take it anymore. The exam itself is grueling enough, as the cameras capture every moment of the time-trials that test skills in pastry, sugar-spinning, chocolate, and that indefinable combination of aesthetic prescience and wizardry in combining the raw ingredients, classical and novel, in ways that adhere to rigid specifications while still beguiling the judges. But the preparation to get there is worse. One chef built his own second kitchen in his basement, designed his house around it, and spent every spare minute there for four years with his wife and family loyally urging him one. That preparation, also glimpsed in the film, is a test of the mental toughness as well as practical skill. The judges, all winners of this competition themselves, are looking for that elusive quality that distinguishes a master chef from one who is talented.
Hence, one chef decides on a light cake for the require wedding cake because the judges will be sampling 16 of them decides one chef. This is strategy of a most subtle nature. So is the presentation. Construction designs require a knowledge of engineering, architecture, and physics. Oh, and glassblowing. All of which must be done coolly on command under the watchful eyes of the judges who are there for every moment.
Hegedus and Pennebaker find exactly the right moments to tell the story of what is happening underneath those almost robotic exteriors. The agonizing over each tiny detail of how a cream puff should look when presented to the judges, surveying a row of the treats that, to a laymanís eyes, would be the envy of any pastry shop. After a dayís competition, there is the look on a wifeís face as her husband tells her the cookie cutter didnít work for the almond cookies. Four years of struggle, sacrifice, planning, effort, and hope all summed up in one short conversation and the measured panic on her eyes, the forced calm in his voice.
As for the judges, they are presented as the stern arbiters of who will be allowed to wear the collar, but also as wholly empathetic. One describes each product as a moral dilemma. When disaster strikes, there are as many tears from the judges as from the competitor who may have just seen four years of effort collapse in an instant.
There is no denying that the chief delight here is watching the pastry itself. Magnificent creations designed to exist for barely a moment in the grand scheme of things before meeting their fate in appreciative gullets, or, in the case of the failures, in a trash can. There is something disconcerting about seeing a cake perfect in almost every respect, including taste, consigned to the dustbin without a second thought, but it speaks to something else disconcerting that the film brings up, but doesnít address. Is it possible for these artists to actually enjoy their creations? And is that distancing necessary to win the collar?
The film begins with Franceís President Nicolas Sarkozy at the awards ceremony declaring that it is morally repugnant to separate intellectual and manual skill. Also economically unsound. Manual skill doesnít fall from the sky, he says, and filmmakers Hegedus and Pennebaker spend the film demonstrating the truth of that.