Filmmakers Chris Hegedus (left) and D. A. Pennebaker (right). Credit: Patricia Soussloff.
As an internationally celebrated pastry chef and co-founder of the highly regarded French Pastry School in Chicago, Jacquy Pfeiffer might be expected to feel supremely confident when it comes to all things French and sweet. But his self-assurance turns poignantly vulnerable as he contemplates entering the finals of the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (Best Craftsmen of France) competition in pastry making. Pfeiffer is hardly alone. Other accomplished pastry chefs, such as Regis Lazard in Luxembourg and Philippe Rigollot of Maison Pic, France’s only three-star restaurant owned by a woman, appear daunted as they get ready to go for the prize — the right to wear the distinctive tri-color Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF) collar. Even the judges and coaches, all previous winners, turn unashamedly weepy as they reflect on the trials faced by the finalists — and recall their own struggles — in this Olympics of pastry making.
In Kings of Pastry, the new documentary from the award-winning filmmaking team of Chris Hegedus and D A Pennebaker (Dont Look Back, The War Room), chefs Pfeiffer, Lazard and Rigollot serve as exclusive guides to a remarkable and never-before-filmed world, where sugar is the stuff of fantasy, high drama and joy. And because the men — who are among the 16 semifinalists in competition — also serve as the film’s protagonists, they reveal what it feels like to risk both pride and reputation in a grueling quest to be named one of the “kings of pastry.”
Chef Jacquy Pfeiffer and Chef Sebastien Canonne. As seen in Kings of Pastry. Credit: Chris Hegedus.
Filmmakers and married couple Hegedus and Pennebaker received unprecedented access from the MOF organization to film the three-day contest in Lyons, France, including not only the event’s public presentations but also the behind-the-scenes cooking and judging. Chefs Pfeiffer, Lazard and Rigollot were eager to share their preparations — and private feelings — in the lead-up to the competition. Kings of Pastry follows Pfeiffer to his childhood home of Alsace, where he spends weeks creating and testing recipes in the bakery shop of an old friend. Lazard, who is competing for the second time — he tragically dropped his sugar sculpture the first time — and Rigollot, who emerges as a favorite among contestants and judges alike, undertake similar preparations.
During the competition’s three days of mixing, piping and sculpting, the 16 chefs create an astounding array of colorful desserts, from tiered wedding cakes and precarious six-foot sugar sculptures to delicate cream puffs, tea pastries and jams. Each chef must also create a bijou — a small, museum-quality sugar sculpture specially designed for the MOF and presented in a glass box. The final challenge is a nail-biting race against the clock in which each chef must hand carry his fragile creations — without shattering them — through a series of rooms to the final display area. To top it off, the contestants must work spotlessly and with amazing composure under the constant scrutiny of master judges. .
The MOF prizes were created nearly a century ago to affirm the importance of manual labor in a society famously in thrall of its intellectuals — or, as French President Nicolas Sarkozy puts it (with wonderful Gallic intellectualism), the idea that “there are two forms of intelligence” is “morally scandalous.” The MOF is not really a competition, in the sense of the chefs competing against each other. The challenge is to meet the exacting standards of the judges; consequently, all or none of the finalists may win blue, white and red striped collar. Given how tough the standards are and how exhausting the regime, it’s surprising anyone has the means and sheer nerve to try more than once.
In this environment, the relations among contestants and judges, plus coaches, families and concerned onlookers, is supportive and sympathetic — a far cry from the cutthroat ambitions usually on display at such events. Ultimately, after much struggle and many alarming setbacks, five of the 16 finalists take home the MOF collar. When jury president Philippe Urraca (who required three attempts to win his own collar) chokes up at the announcements of the winners, it is because he is sincerely distressed for the losers. When the crowd spontaneously cheers all those who competed in the contest regardless of outcome, it is a heartfelt tribute.
Chef Jacquy Pfeiffer. As seen in Kings of Pastry. Credit: Nick Doob.
“People often ask why we would make a film about a French pastry competition,” says co-director Hegedus, “but as soon as we met Chef Jacquy Pfeiffer, we knew that the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France competition was not your average ‘Top Chef’ cook-off. Those reality television shows seemed like mere wind sprints compared to the marathon three-day MOF contest. Watching Jacquy work a huge ball of sugar and like an expert glass artist blow it into a Brancusi figurine, it became clear that there was more required for this contest than imaginative baking.
Chef Sebastien Canonne surveys Chef Jacquy Pfeiffer’s final buffet at the MOF competition in Lyons, France, 2007. Credit: D A Pennebaker.
“Like most of the chefs in the film, my grandfather apprenticed at age 16 to a baker in Europe,” she continues. “He immigrated to New York City, and in the 1920s he opened two elegant confectionery tea rooms. My great-grandfather was chef at one of New York City’s most famous German restaurants. On the other side of the family was my Hungarian grandmother, well-known in her community for her exquisite cooking and baking.”
“At first, Kings of Pastry seemed to be a buddy story, much like the story of James Carville and George Stephanopoulos in our film The War Room, or even like our two young entrepreneurs from ‘Startup.com,'” says co-director Pennebaker. “But it became more than that. We believe that stories of individuals often remind us of our common humanity, so 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.
“It seems that chefs are today’s rock stars, so observing these first-class chefs in competition should be especially thrilling for audiences.”