The judge looks somber, even severe. "Each product," he says with great solemnity, "is a moral dilemma." Is he talking about matters of life and death, about issues that divide nations and citizens alike? No, he is talking about desserts. French desserts. Welcome to the alluring, irresistible world of "Kings of Pastry."
The French, no one needs to be told, take food and food preparation with extreme seriousness. "There are no 'all-you-can eat' places in France," one chef sniffs in this excellent Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker documentary. "The idea is to eat small amounts of the best food."
Hegedus and Pennebaker often make docs, like 1993's "The War Room" about Bill Clinton's presidential campaign, that feature involved, passionate individuals. But the pastry chefs in their latest work take a back seat to no one in terms of focus and concentration.
The occasion for all this intensity is France's system of competitions to pick the best artisans in any number of areas, including pastry. The winners, who wear jaunty tricolored collars that are so sacrosanct that imposters can be sent to prison, are designated as Les Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (the best craftsmen in France), know collectively as MOFs.
The competition for the pastry MOF takes place once every four years over three super-intense days. It's a merciless, nerve-wracking event that is an exam as well as a competition: Because the notion is to find people who uphold the standards of the profession, the judges select more than one winner.
Hegedus and Pennebaker wrangled access to the 2007 MOF finals, held in Lyon. The story picks up at the point where the 70 initial contestants have been whittled down to 16 finalists, with the filmmakers concentrating on three.
First among equals, in part because he has the wrinkle of being a Frenchman transplanted to Chicago as co-founder of that city's French Pastry School, is Jacquy Pfeiffer, who takes things so seriously he has frequent nightmares about the competition. Like the others, Pfeiffer spends time trying to out-think the judges. Because they have to taste 16 wedding cakes, he will make his light and refreshing to stand out: "something heavy with chocolate," he concludes, "is suicide."
The two competitors who live in France also consider becoming an MOF to be the dream of a lifetime. Philippe Rigollot, who works for the celebrated Maison Pic, comes off as cool and collected, while Regis Lazard is more easygoing, though he is still feeling the effects of a horrible blunder four years earlier: he dropped the sugar sculpture that is part of the competition and it shattered.
Roughly the first half of "Kings of Pastry" shows the men engaged in weeks and even months of in-depth preparation and practice. Part of the competition is the construction of unimaginably elaborate showpieces that do wonders with blown sugar. Everything these men make — no women have ever competed for the pastry MOF — looks so mouth-watering that no one should dare watch this film on even a half-empty stomach.
The second half of the film centers on the competition itself, which involves not only doing things well but doing them fast and with a minimum of waste. And, as everyone admits, luck is also involved. "It's like the Olympics," one of the chefs says. "You have to be good on that day."
Perhaps the most unexpected and intriguing aspect of the MOF event is the relationship between the judges and the competitors. Though the judges, all past MOF winners, watch the contestants like hawks, there is enormous camaraderie between the two groups, a sense that the judges are eager to add deserving candidates to their ranks. By the end, both groups have tears in their eyes, and you don't often see that, not even in the Olympics.