Kings of Pastry

I finally caught the movie Kings of Pastry over the weekend, and I can’t say there’s much there to recommend. Which is to say, it’s a movie that teaches you virtually nothing about pastry, the profession of baking or even the ostensible subject of the film, the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France competition. I’m still marveling at how an 80-minute film on pastry managed to miss all that, but it did.

I think the big problem is that structurally Kings of Pastry is little more than a collection of un-narrated snippets punctuated by the odd interview clip. What you end up getting is an outline of the M.O.F. challenge but none of the detail that would make it truly interesting to watch. All that’s clear is that’s it’s a high-pressure contest that takes three days to complete. Beyond that we learn virtually nothing, which is why the penultimate scenes of the movie are like watching a championship cricket game without knowing any of the rules or the relative strengths and weaknesses of the players. Everything about it says it’s important and dramatic, but it’s hard to appreciate why.

Beyond that the film gives the unfortunate impression that the craft of professional pastry-making is mostly about producing elaborate — and let’s face it, extremely gaudy — sugar and chocolate sculptures. Now I’m not classically trained, but even I know that those sorts of pieces are but one (admittedly spectacular) facet of the pastry arts. There are many, many other skills that a world-class pastry chef needs to possess, but alas we’re not given much of a window into those. What a pity.

Kings of Pastry doesn’t even succeed as a human drama, since we never really come to know the film’s main subject, pastry chef Jacquy Pfeiffer, nor care terribly much about him. I can’t say exactly why that is, other than he comes off as a somewhat detached personality. Whether he’s really like that or that the persona we meet is the fault of the filmmakers is hard to tell.

In the end all Kings of Pastry seems to accomplish is a portrayal of pastry makers as a bunch of fussy, obsessive and mostly overfed aesthetes who cry when their sugar flowers break. That may be true, but we don’t need to go broadcasting it to the world, now do we? I mean some of us have our pride.

14 thoughts on “Kings of Pastry”

  1. It’s fascinating that people can have such different responses to the same things. I guess that’s what makes the world go ’round.

    I enjoyed the film, and I never even heard of that competition until I saw the movie. I never thought of this as being a “teaching” movie of any sort, so it’s interesting that part of your disappointment was because it didn’t teach anything. (I’m also not a “real” baker of any sort, I’m a home baker who loves to learn about the subject. And you’re right, it didn’t teach me much about baking, but I wasn’t expecting it to.)

    I think anyone who has ever eaten a piece of cake (and that includes a lot of people!!) knows that those fancy sculptures are but a small part of the pastry arts. Never mind that it’s not what we usually bake — it’s also not what we usually eat!

    If I may make an imperfect but somewhat apt analogy, when I watch the Olympics I don’t necessarily think that everybody who swims, for example, is at the competitors’ levels of perfection, nor do I want an explanation of how to get to that level; I just want to watch the competition, I want to see the way the athletes perform. It’s interesting to get brief back-stories about the athletes, but mostly it’s just about watching and marveling at what is being done.

    And I did marvel at the Pastry Kings. I liked watching them work, I liked what they did (although I have no desire to do it myself), I really thought the whole thing was pretty fascinating. I thought their level of dedication was a bit over-the-top (I feel the same way about Michael Phelps, by the way), but hey, it takes all kinds.

  2. I just watched it yesterday (thanks Netflix) and had a similar reaction. I would’ve LOVED to see a more technical portrayal of what really is the pastry decathlon, but this was more about the drama and pretty pictures than the work of these extremely talented chefs. And the music killed it.

  3. Hmmm, I rather enjoyed it when I saw it, but maybe it was the company? I found the competition interesting, everything that went into it, the intensity of the competitors, and the hoops they had to jump through. I did wonder that the top pastry honors in France were dependent on such large sculptures and projects, which, I agree with you on this point, were gaudy.

  4. I would’ve LOVED to see a more technical portrayal of what really is the pastry decathlon, but this was more about the drama and pretty pictures than the work of these extremely talented chefs.

  5. Well, as a trained pastry professional- if not a chef, I was disappointed as well. I know what it takes to make those amazing, if somewhat gaudy scultpures and show pieces. The thought behind them is this – it takes a complete mastery of technique to produce them – a chef must understand just what chocolate, or sugar can do, and how to manage it. I suspect that by including this type of work in a competition shows the judges exactly how adept a chef is with those skills, as well as give them some insight to their creative and aesthetic point of view.
    I wanted to know more of what was required, watch more of the production, get a deeper understanding of the characters, etc. The music felt artificially “French” and was very distracting. I also agree that the main subject was rather aloof and distant. The one chef who did cry was one of the few in the movie that seemed to actually have any emotion at all. I will say that the way the judges encouraged him to keep working touched me.
    So, I agree with you Joe, not a great film. It left me wanted so much more.

  6. I just watched it last night and thoroughly enjoyed it. Although, now that I’ve read your blog post, I see your point. Certainly, it missed some opportunities to educate. Nonetheless, I’d never heard of the competition so learned a little bit in that regard. What I did take away from it, is something that I can most definitely relate to . . . the sheer commitment, passion and joy from creating something in the kitchen.

  7. I saw it this past weekend and enjoyed it very much. I found it very moving that some of the judges had tears in their eyes when one of the sculptures broke. They all knew how much dedication it took to get there. I admired the pride in which the colors were worn and was fascinated that it is an actual crime to wear them without earning them.

  8. While I haven’t seen the film, I have had the honor of knowing and learning from Jacquy Pfeiffer. Couldn’t find a better person. He is kind, funny and open. While he may have been very focused for the competition, I can’t imagine his personality not coming through in the film. That can only be, then, a mistake on the film maker’s part.

    1. That’s well within the realm of possibility. Fom my vantage point, it isn’t a particularly well-crafted film. Thank for weighing in, Jennifer.

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