It’s a cooking competition too awesome to show up on Bravo.
Dir. Chris Hegedus & D.A. Pennebaker, 2010, 84 min, Viewed via Netflix Instant
What does it mean to be really good at something? Malcolm Gladwell tells us that it takes 10,000 hours of practice for an individual to become “good” at a specific skill. That amounts to roughly 10 years of work. People might see that and balk. Such dedication may seem undesirable, especially in today’s society of instant gratification. But putting the time in pays off, and there’s no better showcase for this than work that entails extreme craftsmanship. Kings of Pastry is a documentary all about what the sum total of years’ experience looks like, and the amazing things that continual practice and skill-honing can create.
Every four years, France holds a very special series of competitions for titles known as the Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (roughly “a best craftsman of France”). There are scores of extremely specific categories of craft, ranging from tailoring to carpentry to metalworking to pastry cooking. The qualifications are intense, narrowing fields of hundreds of applicants down to little more than a dozen in each skill set. The craftsmen then take part in a harrowing days-long contest to create the very best piece that they can. Their work is scrutinized by a panel of experts who apply impossibly stringent standards to even the most minute details. In the end, much like the Highlander, there is only one winner of the title in each category. To win is, to say the least, an unbelievable honor.
This film focuses on one of these competitions: the one for the MOF title in pastry-making. The participants are already among the best chefs in the world, and now they are seeing who is the true champion. The main character is Jacquy Pfeiffer, the founder of the French Pastry School in Chicago. Jacquy exemplifies both how a chef could be viewed as an artist and the artist as a worker. There’s a good deal of minute, mundane taskmastering that goes into all art, and pastry baking is no exception. In preparing his recipes for the competition, Jacquy calibrates his ingredients with a level of precision I’m accustomed to only seeing in NASA mission calculations. He is truly a man well-versed in his craft.
And the payoff of such work is, in short, astounding. The theme of the pastry competition for the year that the film follows is weddings, and the participants had to create a full wedding banquet. This includes not just a cake, but a full pastry buffet and several kinds of food sculptures. Everything involving the sculptures are where the film truly shines. They are absolutely ridiculous. The chefs concoct intricate designs that, to behold, don’t for a second look like they’re made out of sugar or chocolate. And yet they’re completely edible! And, apparently, delicious! It’s nerve-wracking to watch the chefs go through the complex culinary maneuvers needed to shape the materials, and subsequently handle the extremely delicate structures. Some segments in the film, in which the sculptures must be transported from one place to another, are more tense than any bomb-defusing scene. Not all of these lovely creations survive.
This is a movie to make you feel an extraordinary yearning in your stomach. The foodstuffs that Jacquy and his competitors dream up seem impossibly mouth-watering. My jaw was hanging open in forlorn longing as I watched him build an amazing, dome-shaped layer cake. This is food porn at its best. You might notice that I spent a lot of time talking about how great these guys are at what they do, in lieu of anything about the actual movie. I hope that conveys how much of an impression their work made on me.
But putting all that skill on display is, of course, part of the point. We don’t seem to value craftsmanship all that much, at least not nearly as much as we do the boring office jobs of the world. Maybe that’s why we let go of so much of our manufacturing to China. Okay, now I’m wandering off-topic… But Kings of Pastry is such a great paean to how one’s work builds on itself, and the reward to be found in dedication to a singular art. I can only hope that I someday become as good at writing as these men are at making crazy food thingamabobs.