As co-directed by husband-and-wife team D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, Kings of Pastry offers a vérité chronicle of the pâtissier division of the quadrennial Meilleur Ouvriers de France (or MOF) in Lyon, the single most grueling pastry exam in the world. Those who succeed, the film reminds us, will pick up the holy grail of cooking awards -- the striped MOF collar that indicates unsurpassed excellence in pastry preparation. The administrative bodies impose no definite limit on the number of culinary artists who can earn the collar, though the bar is set astronomically high.
Given the co-directors' stature as the greatest living pioneers of cinéma direct outside of Ricky Leacock and Albert Maysles, the documentary's instinct for emotional touchstones and compelling moments and its surefooted pacing will hardly shock anyone familiar with the helmers' legacies. What may throw some viewers, however, is the thematic emphasis of the material: instead of a schematic account of the step-by-step culinary preparations made by various entrants, undergirded by a clarification of the MOF's various stages and its rules, the material reaches for something broader and deeper. It emerges as a bittersweet, gently profound meditation on the nature of striving for perfection, among craftsmen so advanced in a very specialized trade that all but a handful of men and women in the world ever grace such heights.
At its outset, the documentary isolates three of the 16 participants in the running for the 2007 victory: Gallic expat Jacquy Pfeiffer, co-founder of Chicago's French Pastry School; Luxembourgian Regis Lazard, a sophomore contender who lost his first chance when he dropped and shattered his sugar sculpture four years prior; and Philippe Rigollot, a chef at Maison Pic, the only French restaurant run by a female chef to receive three Michelin stars. Pfeffer gets the most screen time, supported by occasional cutaways to Lazard and Rigollot. Curiously, though -- and this represents the film's only real weakness (the implication of a narrative thread left undeveloped) -- one of the three men inexplicably falls by the wayside at the documentary's midway point; the two other subjects emerge as the real stars of the show.
As the film rolls forward, with firsthand views of culinary concoctions so sophisticated that they fall into the sculpture category and scarcely even resemble food, we begin to realize just how high the various chefs have risen to reach this level of wizardry. Pennebaker and Hegedus seem so aware (and make the audience so aware) of the blood, sweat, and tears poured into each chef's labor that, consciously or not, undercurrents of poignancy emerge -- the implicit feeling that discrimination between victors and losers may even start to lose purpose when it occurs on such an extreme level. The documentary also explores the resonances of succeeding and failing -- illustrated by the outcomes for the two aforementioned MOF entrants. It would be unfair to reveal more in this context; what matters is that the co-directors use these stories to (in one case) paint a heartfelt and convincing portrait of the familial love and support that can play a role in shaping one's life, and (in another) reveal the emotional strain that a single, careless error can threaten to cause. The filmmakers also build up to a surprising but touching resolution and make an enduring impact on the audience with the final appearances of the chief MOF judge. He publicly cites the winners and losers with tears in his eyes, and then (in a candid interview cutaway) describes the reasons for the judges' most shocking but gratifying decision. The emotion present in these scenes has the uncanny effect of forcing us to re-evaluate the judges. Where initially they seemed stringent, nitpicky, and merciless, we realize that these perceptions were oversimplified; their grasp on the individual chefs' abilities is deeper and more thorough than anyone might have imagined. In other words, Pennebaker and Hegedus manage to reshape the audience's perceptions about several key players -- a rare and formidable accomplishment in the documentary sphere.
As previously implied, a number of specific logistical details surrounding the MOF remain murky, but that scarcely matters because the material triumphs on another plane altogether: as the record of two parallel but vastly different emotional journeys made by men who are striving for the same elusive goal.