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Like many skill sets, it’s quite possible for just about anyone to bake something: with enough time, patience and resources, the clumsiest oaf among us can create baked goods that are, at the very least, edible…even if just barely. Cooking, after all, is as much about science and process as anything else: if you can understand what happens in the kitchen, there’s a good chance that you can replicate it. In theory, at least.

As with anything, however, it takes something a little extra to truly excel. While just about anyone can prepare a dish (under the right circumstances), being an artist is something else entirely. Becoming the equivalent of Picasso in the kitchen requires no small amount of dedication, self-sacrifice, forward-momentum and tunnel-vision: while there are any number of talented chefs spread across the globe, there are very few who could be considered “the very best,” the shining standard to which all other chefs aspire. The “kings of pastry,” if you will.

Veteran documentarians D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus take a look at these “creme de la cremes” of the baking world with their vibrant, thoroughly engaging Kings of Pastry (2009). The film takes a look at the ultra-prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France (literally “best craftsman in France”), a difficult, stressful and intense three-day baking competition that takes place every four years and draws chefs from around the world. Rather than competing against each other, the chefs attempt to prove their worth and earn the coveted “collar,” a badge of honor which becomes a lifelong calling card. Few will make it through the demanding trials and even fewer will earn the top honor: after all, there are plenty of extremely talented chefs in the world but only a few who can be considered “the best of the best.”

For the purposes of the documentary, Pennebaker and Hegedus follow around several different contestants as they prepare for, participate in and deal with the fall-out from the Meilleur Ouvrier de France (known among the participants as the MOF). We spend the most time with Jacquy Pfeiffer, an intense, driven chef who founded the only “pastry-only” baking school in America, but it’s definitely not a one-man show. We’re also introduced to Philippe Rigollot, a devoted family man, and Regis Lazard, a chef making his second attempt at the MOF after dropping one of his creations during his first go-around. Since the MOF trials are four years apart, the contestants spend the time in between honing their craft and preparing: it truly is the Olympics of baking and the chefs must give their whole lives over to the pursuit if they hope to have any chance of success.

As follow around the various chefs, we also get peeks into their private lives and the forces that guide them on their journey. Pfeiffer is the neurotic perfectionist, an artist capable of the most exquisite, delicate pastry sculptures imaginable, yet wracked by such doubt that his girlfriend, Rachel, has to call him every night and pretend that the MOF competition has been cancelled just so he can fall asleep. Rigollot is the nice-guy family man whose kids are his personal tasting judges and whose mother instilled a love of baking in him from an early age. Lazard is the underdog coming back for one last shot at glory: his long-suffering wife, Frederique, wants this to be Lazard’s last MOF attempt so that he can focus on his own business and family. With all of the forces around them, the contestants must attempt to clear their heads and focus on the task at hand.

And what a task: spread out over three days, the chefs must create 40 different recipes, ranging from ridiculously elegant wedding cakes to chocolate sculptures, sugar sculptures and lollipops. They must create razor-thin candy ribbons, work with chocolate that begins to harden seconds after its poured and fight the ravages of humidity (the enemy of sugar, as we’re told), all while under the constant scrutiny of the MOF judges and the ever-present ticking clock. Disaster lurks around every corner (setting the delicate creations down is a nerve-wracking pursuit that seems roughly equitable to juggling dynamite) and the chefs’ fragile nerves are always in danger of cracking, just like their glossy, edible art. The task is almost impossible but the reward is tremendous: the winners will receive not only personal accolades from French President Nicolas Sarkozy, himself, but life-time bragging rights as genuine “Kings of Pastry.”

Despite its bare-bones look and style (the camerawork reminds of ’90s-era PBS documentaries and the score is as repetitive and chipper as video game music), Pennebaker and Hegedus’ film is a thoroughly absorbing and fascinating peek into one of the most demanding cooking competitions out there. There’s a genuine sense of tension and drama to the film that, at times, translates to some fairly white-knuckle moments: the climatic scene involving Rigollot’s sugar sculpture is powerful and heartbreaking, two terms which are rarely equated with cooking competitions. The subjects are all likable and engaging, to boot, which really helps draw the audience in. While we end up spending more time with Jacquy, his daughter, Alex, and Rachel than we do with the others, we get enough time with Rigollot and Lazard to prevent them from seeing under-developed or like afterthoughts.

There are also plenty of nice reflections and commentary from Philippe Urraca, the head of the MOF organization. Urraca is the one who points out the (sometimes minute) separation between the “great” and the “very best,” stating how it can often just be a matter of timing: it actually took him three attempts to become an MOF and now he’s the president of the whole thing…try and try again, indeed! Urraca and the other judges seem to have genuine affection and interest in the contestants, a fact driven home by everyone’s distress over Rigollot’s last-minute catastrophe. Since the chefs aren’t really competing against each other, per se, there’s much more sense of camaraderie and fellowship than in more cut-throat competitions.

Ultimately, Kings of Pastry is a fascinating look into what it takes to become the very best chef in France, a country that is certainly no slouch when it comes to the art of cooking. Toeing the line between dedication and obsession (one contestant was on his fourth MOF, meaning that he’d been working on this for sixteen consecutive years!), Pennebaker and Hegedus show that you need to be all-in in order to become the very best. Come for the unbelievable displays of pastry (in every sense of the term, this film is hardcore, triple-X “food porn”) but stay for the genuinely involving human drama and the ultimate triumph of true believers putting it all on the line for their dreams.

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