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Kings of Pastry -- Film Review

Kings of Pastry
Pennebaker Hegedus Films

The Bottom Line

Documentary peeking into a high-stakes French competition will fascinate foodies.

Opened

Sept. 15 (First Run Features)

Directed by

Chris Hegedus
D.A. Pennebaker

Veering from the performing-arts arena that, with the notable exception of “The War Room,” usually has been the focus of their documentaries, Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker turn to the highest levels of professional cooking in “Kings of Pastry,” a short work whose drama plays like a higher-stakes version of popular cuisine-oriented reality TV shows.

Veering from the performing-arts arena that, with the notable exception of “The War Room,” usually has been the focus of their documentaries, Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker turn to the highest levels of professional cooking in “Kings of Pastry,” a short work whose drama plays like a higher-stakes version of popular cuisine-oriented reality TV shows.

Intermittent subtitles and unglossy production values present a challenge in marketing to that TV audience, but the dazzling skill of the movie’s subjects should generate good buzz among foodies who see it.

At issue is the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (M.O.F.) competition, which is held every four years and has Olympics-level significance for the pastry chefs who seek its approval. The 16 men who enter already are esteemed in their fields, working at top restaurants and running cooking schools, but are hoping to earn a tricolor collar that signifies something close to dessert-course infallibility.

When we meet Jacquy Pfeiffer, a round-faced and likable Frenchman who co-founded a pastry school in Chicago, he already has been planning his M.O.F. campaign for years. He knows that many brilliant patissiers go through multiple cycles before earning the honor — even the head of this year’s jury tried three times before passing — consuming possibly a dozen years of one’s career.

The psychological strain is conveyed in a single telling detail: Every night, Pfeiffer’s girlfriend must help him sleep by convincing him that the competition has been canceled. But the physical challenge is far from trivial: Speaking of a sugar-crystal globe that will be part of his final project, he says, “I just need one, but I’m going to make nine in case I break eight.” By the time he leaves Chicago for France to conduct a “dry run” and perfect his demo, enough sugar has been wasted to rot the teeth of a thousand children.

Although the movie introduces us to a couple of Pfeiffer’s fellow finalists on the other side of the Atlantic, it doesn’t spend enough time with them to get viewers invested in their success. The M.O.F isn’t a zero-sum game — all the finalists could, theoretically, earn the honor at once — but some viewers, especially those trained by “Top Chef” and its ilk, will miss the feeling of rooting for one cook against the others. Still, they will witness one climactic reversal — and the attempt to overcome it — that is at least as emotionally moving as anything glimpsed this year on Bravo.

“Pastry” doesn’t get as deep into the science of baking as some might hope — differences in baking materials are touched on only briefly, though humidity’s effect on sugar plays a dramatic role. But it does offer truly fascinating footage of esoteric sugar skills including the crafting of layered ribbons, swooping sculptural forms and delicate, transparent flowers. It’s sculpture worth eating — if only its makers can carry it from the stress-filled kitchen to the exhibition floor in one piece.

Opened: Wednesday, Sept. 15 (First Run Features)
Production: Pennebaker Hegedus Films, BBC, VPRO
Directors: Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker
Producers: Frazer Pennebaker, Flora Lazar
Directors of photography: Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker, Nick Doob
Music: Sebastien Giniaux
Editors: Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker
No rating, 84 minutes