In France, if you want to be a great chef, you have to earn The Collar, a blue, white and red neckband that lets everyone know you are a member of the highly exclusive Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (Best Craftsmen of France), or MOF. Every four years the French president hosts a competition in which chefs from around the world vie to earn the collar — and the prestige and respect it commands. The final number of contenders is gradually whittled down to 16. The competition, to put it mildly, is fierce.
The Kings of Pastry, the slight but filling documentary by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus (The War Room), follows one hopeful — Jacquy Pfeiffer, co-founder of the French Pastry School in Chicago, the only institution of its kind in the United States — as he prepares for the pastry Olympics. His business partner, Sebastienne Cannone, is already an MOF. The early portions of the film, as Pfeiffer plots his strategy in the school’s kitchen and weighs the advantages of submitting a raspberry cake to judges who will probably be overwhelmed by chocolate or sweats over just how far to decorate a cream puff without drowning it in dressing, are funny and illuminating — and will make your stomach rumble. (Woe to anyone who hasn’t eaten first.)
In Lyons, as the competition begins, the tone becomes more serious. The film introduces us to a couple of other contestants, such as Regis Lazard, who was eliminated one year when he tripped, and his elaborate sugar structure shattered. But the focus remains primarily on Pfeiffer, who must contend with increasing pressure and some amusingly snooty judges. The Food Network is awash with cooking- and baking-competition shows, but The Kings of Pastry operates on a much higher level. Some of the creations these chefs produce defy belief (and make you wish you could jump into the screen to have a taste). By the contest’s suspenseful end, you’re rooting for Pfeiffer as he waits to hear if he’s earned a collar. But his dedication and drive, and extraordinary skill in the kitchen, have already made him a winner.
With: Jacquy Pfeiffer, Sebastian Cannone, Regis Lazard.
Directors: D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus.
Producers: Flora Lazar, Frazier Pennebaker.
A First Run Features release. Running time: 85 minutes. In English and French with English subtitles. No offensive material. In Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.