Many great American chefs are fond of complaining that the talent pipeline of highly skilled American chefs working their way through the ranks is all gummed up. Moxie they've got, but technique they haven't. The well has dried and what's good for the Gulf is bad for kitchen. Some lay the blame at the reckless American need to experiment before developing a firm grasp of the necessary elements and the obsolescence of the classic French culinary experience. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in a letter to then President-Elect Richard Nixon, "[Americans] retain a tradition of revolutionary rhetoric that gives an advantage to those who challenge authority rather than those who uphold it." This leads to problems. After all, how can one détourne what one hasn't yet mastered or deconstruct a ballotine if one hasn't Le Technique?
Documentarian D.A. Pennebaker is no stranger to reckless Americans. In fact, he's made a career of documenting the best of the reckless from Janis Joplin in Monterey Pop to Bob Dylan in Don't Look Back. But in Kings of Pastry, he turns his eyes to the punctilious and obsessive world of French pastry chefs. Specifically, the creme de la creme — pun intended and apologized for — of French pâtissiers as they compete for the title of meillleur ouvrier de France, a sort of Legion D'Honneur for craftsmen.
After being bombarded by previews for movies about the Holocaust — and I love a good Shoah doc probably more than most but Nuremberg and Nazi Doctors? Come on, Film Forum! — I couldn't have been more eager to escape to the ethereal spun sugar world of pastry. I looked for confection but sadly there was something more substantial. The film has a built in narrative arc and we follow its protagonist Jacquy Pfeiffer, a doughy and adorable Chicago-based pastry chef and co-owner of The French Pastry School, as he returns to France to compete in the finals, an event held every four years. Truth be told it's more an exam than a competition since of the 16 finalists all could conceivably gain the M.O.F. and the silly red white and blue collar that goes with it.
There's a lot of grown men staring at little éclairs, taking bites and staring off into space. In the beginning of the film, this intense concentration on literal trifles occasioned titters. "How absurd!" an old bird behind me crowed. But soon enough, like when gazing at a 5-D "painting," eyes refocused. What Pennebaker is concerned with is pathos, sacrifice, love, devotion, skill, fraternité, affection, disappointment, man tested to his breaking point. Spun sugar is just an excuse. When looked through this lens, two men staring at an éclair isn't absurd for they are looking not simply at an éclair but at years of hard work, of first steps of firstborns unseen, of evenings into the night spent in a replica pastry kitchen in the basement. When, announcing the new batch of M.O.F.'s the jury foreman cries histrionically between each name, pastry is absolutely beside the point.
Well, it is and it isn't. For Pfeiffer, the foreman and all the other hopeful M.O.F.'s the pastry is precisely the point. The maniacal attention to detail, the fanatical craftsmanship, the years of sacrifice, this is the done in the service of pastry and even more, to squeeze the last bits of daylight from between a set of rules and regulations of pastry making and their iteration and enactment writ in dough, sugar and soy lecithin. For us — not merely as viewers but as Americans — our eye turns to the eddying currents of pathos, looking for the grand and the gestural. There must be something more — and indeed there is — to this than slavish devotion to technique and technical perfection and this is what within us catches our eye most.
It is not insignificant to note that America lacks any sort of honor of equal status and import to be awarded in the areas of culinary and pastry expertise. There are no grand concours as seriously endeavored. Our competitions tend toward hotdog eating and gimmickry, freewheeling and fun-to-watch. The audience's guffawing at the absurd dedication of the heroes of Pennebaker's film, perhaps unwittingly, provides a neat and apt answer for why the ranks of our country's up-and-coming chefs lack technical skill.
Trailer: Kings of Pastry
Correction: In a serious oversight, I neglected to credit Pennebaker's longtime partner and collaborator, Chris Hegedus. As one of the film's producers wrote to us, "[T]his film was largely Hegedus' work. Given this, the fact that she is listed first in the credits and the fact that they have been working together for over three decades, it seems strange that you do not include her in your review." It was strange and wrong and hopefully, this correction will remedy that error.