POV “Kings of Pastry”
July 21, 2011
–Passion, Tragedy and Triumph Are the Main Ingredients When Elite Pastry Chefs Vie To Earn a Coveted Best Craftsmen of France Award-
“I never saw so many strong men sobbing at once.” — Nancy Banks-Smith, The Guardian
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 (M.O.F.) 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 (“Don't 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.”
Kings of Pastry launches the 24th season of the POV ( Point of View ) series on Tuesday, June 21, 2011, at 10 p.m. on Eight . POV's regular season continues on Tuesdays through Sept. 27 and concludes with special broadcasts in 2011 and 2012. American television's longest-running independent documentary series, POV has won a Special Emmy for Excellence in Television Documentary Filmmaking, the IDA Award for Best Continuing Series and NALIP'S 2011 Award for Corporate Commitment to Diversity.
Filmmakers and married couple Hegedus and Pennebaker received unprecedented access from the M.O.F. 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 M.O.F. 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 M.O.F. 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 M.O.F. 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 M.O.F. 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.
Kings of Pastry is a production of Pennebaker Hegedus Films in association with the BBC and VPRO.
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