They took us into the heart of the Clinton campaign (The War Room). They brought us backstage to see Bob Dylan (Don’t Look Back). And they spent sleepless nights chronicling the dot-com boom (Startup.com). Now, directors Chris Hegedus and D A Pennebaker go into the depths of . . . pastry-making!
What, am I missing something? Can’t venerable documentary directors make a bit of puffery (that’s the only pun I’m allowing myself here) now and then? Mais, non! Kings of Pastry is actually a raw, dramatic doc about the intense French pastry competition to earn the title of Meilleurs Ouvrier de France, something that’s akin to winning “Top Chef” — but it actually necessitates life-long dedication to craftsmanship, as well as passion and skill. I mean, these guys really earn it. And so I asked them about the film, which opens today at the Film Forum in Manhattan.
Doc Soup: You’re best known for more serious subject matter such as The War Room and Startup.com; how did Kings of Pastry come about and why did you want to make it?
Chris Hegedus and D A Pennebaker:
Kings of Pastry came about when our friend, Flora Lazar, who had just graduated from the highly regarded French Pastry School in Chicago, told us that one of the school’s founders, chef Jacquy Pfeiffer, was about to pursue a life long dream — to compete in the world’s most prestigious pastry competition, the century-old “Meilleurs Ouvrier de France” (MOF). The prize, a blue, white and red tricolor collar worn on the chef’s jacket, is a lifelong distinction of excellence bestowed by the president of France, in this case President Sarkozy. Like the Olympics, the MOF competition takes place every four years and is a grueling three-day pastry marathon where the competing chefs create every imaginable sugar-laden confection from delicate chocolates to gravity-defying sculptures that threaten to collapse at every turn.
The whole adventure intrigued us as a possible film, so we flew to Chicago to meet Jacquy and his partner, Sebastien Cannone. Sebastien had already won his prestigious MOF collar, so we saw immediately that the stakes were high professionally for Jacquy. But after learning of the years of preparation and financial sacrifice involved practicing for this competition, we realized that the personal risk for Jacquy and his family was enormous as well.
At first Kings of Pastry seemed to be a buddy story, much like James Carville and George Stephanopolous in The War Room, or even like our two young entrepreneurs from Startup.com. But it became more than that. We believe stories of individuals often remind us of our common humanity, and being dropped into someone else’s world, someone passionate and totally consumed in what they are doing, whether it be pastry, politics or music is the basis for a fascinating film.
For us, the idea of pursuing excellence in the manual arts, like pastry, is every bit as important as the endeavors of the subjects of our other films. What interested us about the Meilleur Ouvrier de France award was the idea that excellence in an artisan field should be recognized in the same way as excellence in academic or intellectual pursuits. And I think when you see the film and view the incredible creations of these chefs you realized that there’s much more than baking skill involved — it requires knowledge of chemistry, engineering and physics.
Reality TV food competitions are all the rage now; what’s your opinion of them, and how is Kings of Pastry different?
Kings of Pasty, like Reality TV food competition shows, is highly entertaining and fun, even funny. But the real difference is that the reality shows are television constructs made to sell ads and boost celebrity. They feel artificial because reality shows lack the true life intensity and real meaningfulness that comes from watching chefs compete for an award with cultural and historic value that has real importance for their careers, is something that they care about passionately, and is theirs for the rest of their lives.
What do you think fans of shows like "Top Chef" and "Chopped" will think of Kings of Pastry?
It seems that chefs are today’s rock stars, so observing these first-class chefs competing in Kings of Pastry will be especially thrilling for audiences. I don’t think that "Top Chef" can match the real life tension of this three-day marathon. It will have you gripping the edge of your seat — but afterward you may need to eat some chocolate.
A pastry disaster occurs toward the end of the documentary; can you discuss your emotions in a moment such as that? As a filmmaker, you must be thrilled by the moment, but your sympathy for the subject must contradict your desire to capture such drama…
For the most part, we make films about people we admire and we usually become their friends, so when something painful or embarrassing happens to them, it’s painful for us as well. For filmmakers, it’s complicated. You are filming a story, so when something dramatic happens that’s a gift for the camera but it can also be a heartache for the person looking through the camera.
For more information on Kings of Pastry, including upcoming screenings, visit the website.