Sweet victory

Kings of Pastry

on September 17, 2010 by Matthew Nestel
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Documentarians Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker engross viewers in a pins-and-needles odyssey into mythical kitchens, where master pastry chefs dare to reach for immortality. The snowball drama of what goes on beyond the stove will compel auds to dig for something deeper than the last Milk Dud in their single-serving yellow box.

Chicago-based chef Jacquy Pfeiffer is at the top of his field. He collaborates with fellow pastry chef Sebastien Canonne to run a school centered solely on rearing sweet-toothed artisans. In his sights is a title to which few humans dare aspire: a French contest conducted every four years that pits the best pastry chefs in the world against each other in a battle royale of sorts. Known as the M.O.F. (short for Meilleurs Ouvriers de France), winning this competition is akin to winning Olympic medals in multiple sports or scoring a game-ending goal in the World Cup finals. It's one mofo of a competition.

A Baker's dozen count of edible haute couture hotshots (all men for whatever reason) come to Lyon to conquer the most esteemed prize: the blue, white and red stripes worn on the neckline of the cook's white uniform. This emblem guarantees the chef will never have to fry chips for pennies ever again. One chef emphasized that if a fraudulent chef were to don the M.O.F. colors he'd be arrested. As the brutal competition assembles, Chef Canonne, who has already won the confectioner's prize, acts as Pfeiffer's coach. He opines, "Those guys are all good. They're not there by chance."

From Chicago to France, Pfeiffer leaves his family to tackle the impossible. It should be known these cooks are doing more than whisking icing or licking custard off their thumbs, they are glassblowing phenoms who stretch and sculpt sugar. Additionally, the three-day marathon features daunting hurdles. The contestants are charged with making uncanny blown sugar vessels engineered to carry the weight of a cake, and required to build a dessert tray of sinful concoctions, taste-tested by discerning M.O.F. chefs. The pressure cooker is amplified with the M.O.F.s snooping, gawking and poking at pupils' work (even their trash) as they swish and blowtorch sugared butterfly wings.

So much drama mounts days leading up to the cook-off, and the competition is no relief. You want every cook to be crowned king. The work crescendos to such epic levels that the viewer is not going to know how this thing ends until the very, very end. The characters wear blinders. They go on about "exploding coconut flour" and bitch about how "humidity is sugar's worst enemy." You see the mistakes and the incredible nanosecond finishes made. Virile men become gushing fire hydrants of tears. Even the president of the competition (himself an M.O.F. after three tries!) loses it when he announces the winners and (silently) the losers.

When things don't go right with the ex-pat Pfeiffer, he wears his humble pie face dignity. And there are surprises with some of the other cooks, some of whom define what a winner is by not giving up. The work is a brutal rite of passage that will click with anybody who has put it all out there and lost once, twice or thrice. And still got up to face the music again.

Distributor: First Run Features
Directors: Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker
Producer: Frazer Pennebaker
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 84 min
Release date: September 15 NY

Tags: Frazer Pennebaker, D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus
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