Once every four years, a competition comes around that tests the strength, skill, and mettle of men. It requires ’round-the-clock training—and the stress can reduce grown men to tears. But at its end, the victor proudly sports a medal and the title “Meilleurs Ouvriers de France”…the “Best Craftsmen in France.”
Clearly not the Olympics, though the contest is of Olympic proportions. Documentary The Kings of Pastry, screening at Northwest Film Forum from Nov 26-Dec 2, turns a lens on 16 French pastry chefs in a grueling three-day battle for the Collar: a red-white-and-blue-striped honor certified by President Sarkozy, destined for the necks of only the finest beignet-makers, the greatest chocolatiers. Four men (it’s not called “Queens of Pastry”) may become MOFs every four years. “If you wear the collar and you’re not [an MOF], you can go to jail,” one MOF says with a remarkably straight face. This is serious business. I think they’re buried in those things.
It’s this unfiltered glimpse at an intense—and unintentionally hilarious—subculture that has made movies like Word Wars, Spellbound, and Ready, Set, Bag! succeed, and this documentary by Da Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus (The War Room) is no different. Though they fixate on one chef’s struggles—Jacquy Pfeiffer, cofounder of Chicago’s French Pastry School—the filmmakers compensate with snatches of brilliance, capturing a judge’s grimace, a chef in tears, and shot after shot of gastro-porn: cakes, candy, cream puffs, tarts, delicate sugar sculptures that belong in a gallery. Even if you’re not a foodie, if you’ve never heard the name Anthony Bourdain, you can appreciate the preciousness of a judge calling each vote “a moral dilemma,” or a gentleman in a striped collar barking at pudgy chefs like a drill sergeant: “Bust a gut! Be a man!” I’ll never look at a cream puff the same way again.
Kings of Pastry screens at Northwest Film Forum from Nov 26-Dec 2.