In an age when talent has been democratized, when even Bristol Palin thinks she can dance, someone has to uphold excellence and embrace elitism and generally fly their snoot flag high. If so, who better than the French, especially in the kitchen?
There, every quadrennial, Olympian pastry chefs gather to run the confectionery equivalent of the marathon - three gruelling days making nougats, éclairs, tartes, brioches, wedding cakes and vast sugar sculptures that look like Lalique crystal on steroids, all produced under the sensitive noses of judges who could sniff out a zestless meringue a kilometre away.
At these lofty heights, few are privileged to compete and even fewer win the only prize on offer - the tiny collar that denotes a "Meilleur Ouvrier de France," and, since great patisserie makes for good politics, a peck on both cheeks from Nicolas Sarkozy himself.
Kings of Pastry takes us to these Olympics of bonbons and, as forged by veteran D.A. Pennebaker and his partner Chris Hegedus, the documentary proves almost as sweet as its subject. Our main guide is Jacquy Pfeiffer, an expatriate living in Chicago but, in the early frames, preparing for a return to his homeland - he's made the final cut, one of 16 chosen to go for the glory.
Clearly a sampler of his own wares, Jacquy is a tad rotund, but don't let his bulk fool you. He's got a deft touch with chocolate truffles and, when it comes to his raspberry caramel filling, the guy is definitely in fighting trim.
Still, the main event is drawing nigh, a mere six weeks off, and these final training sessions are crucial - you need to put in the reps, but you don't want to peak early. Jacquy flies off to a kitchen in rural France where, under the anxious gaze of his coaches, he pulls long ribbons of sugar and re-attacks that crucial wedding cake, ringed like a geologist's sketch with layer upon layer of sedimentary sweeties. Although, bathed in sweat, the man is a demon for work, and those coaches can't hide their concern. One worries about Jacquy's mindset: "You can see it's starting to weigh on him." Another checks the skies and frets about the weather on game day: "Humidity is sugar's worst enemy."
But now the opening ceremonies have arrived, along with nervous families and well-wishers and assorted other groupies. Onto the gleaming field of combat - chrome, granite, stainless steel all a'sparkle - the aspiring kings make their entrance. Grey-haired and eminent, an MOF himself, the president of the jury instructs them on the three-day ritual and then, over in the Tasting Lab, reminds his fellow jurors of their onerous duty: "Each taste is a moral dilemma." Pascal couldn't have put it better.
Blissfully free of voice-over narration, and bouncing along to a Django-like score, the doc builds to a surprisingly suspenseful climax, as the camera closes in on the kitchen's heated faces and frantic hands and eventually on those enormous sugar sculptures - one false step, a thumb's worth of misplaced pressure, and the whole edifice shatters like a broken dream.
Those Iron Chefs have nothing on our pastry boys, such a fine blend of the doughy and the delicate. Let the Bristols damn the elite and, with a thud, think they can dance; here it's still la crême de la crême and, by the by, vive la France.
Kings of Pastry
- Directed by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus
- Classification: NA
Kings of Pastry opens Thursday for a limited run at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox.Report Typo/Error