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Kings of Pastry

The accidental un-tourist sees a film and thus goes to France while staying home

O, hélas, the trip to France has to be postponed. How to console yourself?

A bistro dinner on your home turf, bien sûr, starting with the herbacious absinthe tang of Ricard or Pernod (ice and water in the side) and a slab of coarse pâté abundantly garnished: grainy mustard, candied gooseberries, slivered cornichons, thin toasts. Now let the wine begin. And sigh into your moules frites or maybe hangar steak with buttery mashed and a clutch of haricots verts. On to an astringent little salad of endive and cress to spur the digestion, square the conscience, and help make room for dessert.

You'll need beaucoup room, even though the perfect dessert on this evening of consolation is one you'll eat with your eyes and ears. It's Kings of Pastry, a documentary from the legendary team of Chris Hegedus and D A Pennebaker (The War Room), opening at art houses nationally in the fall of 2010 and sure to follow on DVD.

Every three years, sixteen French pastry chefs compete in Alsace for the coveted blue, red, and white striped collar designating its wearer a M.O.F—one of the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (Best Craftsmen of France). So exalted is this honor that President Nicolas Sarkozy will grace the award ceremony; the film opens with a flash forward to his speech declaring that work done with the hands must be valued as keenly as the work of the mind.

For the characters in this film, it's hands, mind, heart. If you want to be the best of anything, it must be your everything. The film centers on Jacquy Pfeiffer, co-founder of the French Pastry School in Chicago, as he packs up his kit and travels to his native Alsace to practice for the three-day competition. He loves his daughter and his girlfriend, he's full of bonhomie for his fellow chefs, but it's the classical pastry canon—the glossy striped candy ribbons, the gossamer spun sugar, the precision chocolate sculpting, the zillion-layered dome-shape wedding cake—that engages him most fully, defines who he is in this life.

As such a film must do, and this does very well, Kings of Pastry balances the human and the superhuman, the universal and the parochial. Some of the scenes, especially those with children, feel scripted; far more often, the camera captures extraordinary moments that no one could have seen coming.

But it's as a series of snapshots of the one and only France that Kings truly triumphs. The scenery of Alsace and Lyon is lusciously specific; you can almost taste it, as if the green hills were marzipan. The faces with their quirked mouths, the Gallic shrugs, the unabashed foodism, the respect for classicism: so French, you are simply transported.

And that's the whole idea, n'est-ce pas?


-- Nancy Weber

Fall 2010