Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary “Kings of Pastry” starts its U.S. theatrical run this Friday, September 17. The directors provided indieWIRE with an exclusive clip and commentary.
Jacquy Pfeiffer, a French chef who lives in Chicago and runs a highly regarded pastry school with his friend, Sebastien Canonne, has decided to pursue his dream — to compete in the world’s most prestigious pastry competition, the century old “Meilleurs Ouvrier de France” and be declared “one of the best” by President Sarkozy. The MOF, as it’s known in the starred restaurants of France, is held every four years like the Olympics and is one of the most grueling of all culinary competitions. The stakes are professionally high for Jacquy since Sebastien, who will be his coach, already wears the coveted blue, white and red striped collar on his chef jacket, the lifelong symbol of a MOF champion. And there are personal risks as well. Jacquy has sacrificed his finances and his family for years preparing for the MOF competition, including passing an intense semifinal contest. Now he has decided to return to his native Alsace in order to practice each recipe with French ingredients. He sets up a working kitchen in the garage of a childhood friend, a two-time World Cup bread baking champion. During the final three-day competition in Lyon, Jacquy is one of sixteen elite French pastry chefs who create the most exquisite and ornate treats imaginable as well as construct gravity-defying sculptures of chocolate and sugar that threaten to collapse at every turn. It’s a good story. We decided to film it.
The MOF pastry competition is unlike any Top Chef cook off. The award carries enormous cultural and historical significance for French chefs and winning the MOF grants entrance into an elite culinary brotherhood. There is really no equivalent in the U.S. so part of the challenge for us was to make sure people would understand this difference as well as the enormous personal risks for the finalists. And, as with most of our films we wanted to do this by watching a person live through the competition. We believe that stories of individuals can remind us of our common humanity. Being dropped into someone else’s world, someone passionate and totally consumed in what they are doing, whether it be pastry, politics (“The War Room”) or music (“Don’t Look Back”) is something that we have always found fascinating.
We heard about the MOF competition from our friend Flora Lazar, a recent graduate of the French Pastry School, who told us that her teacher, chef Jacquy Pfeiffer, was practicing for this unique three-day competition. We were intrigued and flew to Chicago to meet Jacquy and his coach, Sebastien Canonne, co-founder of the school. When we saw that Sebastien was already wearing the MOF collar we knew that the stakes for Jacquy were high indeed, personally as well as professionally.
The cooking school was impressive too. Filled not only with exquisite confections and complicated chocolate sculptures, but with hundreds of eager would-be chefs learning the magic of French pastry from its masters. It was an entirely new, fascinating world and we had to decide whether to jump into it immediately without waiting for permissions and funding. Our executive producer, Frazer Pennebaker, our inexhaustible partner for over thirty years, would have to find a way to make these follow. What wouldn’t wait was the story of following Jacquy to France and into the competition at Lyon. It was chancy but so is any film where you want to see what happens as it happens and not wait to be told about it afterwards. This meant we would have to do the filming ourselves using equipment that we had on hand. We convinced Flora to be our field producer and Jacquy graciously agreed to let us film his adventure. But access to the competition proved more difficult. No one had ever been allowed to even watch the pastry competition from inside the kitchens where it took place, so the idea of actually wanting to film inside was met with apprehension. Ever hopeful, we told our friend Nick Doob to get his camera and fly to Lyon to help us. Finally, the day before the MOF began, we were allowed in to film, but even then, our access was restrictive. No lights, no audio booms, no radio mics, and on the last crucial day when the chefs would be carrying their huge delicate sculptures, we were restricted to a small boxed area drawn on the floor at the end of each kitchen worktable. But filmmaking is working with challenges. It would be our risk as well as Jacquy’s.
When we first start shooting a film we look for signs of a story. The following scenes were shot shortly after we met our main characters.
We began shooting at the French Pastry School in Chicago. Chef Stephane Glacier, a visiting French chef, a MOF, was teaching a master class on macaroons. He angrily admonishes a sloppy student, “there’s sugar everywhere, you’re table is a mess, oo la la.” It was a funny moment but Stephane was not laughing. Pastry looks delicate but making a perfect macaroon is serious business. Soon after that Sebastien and Stephane let us know just how serious, “if you wear these collars and you’re not a MOF you can go to jail.”
Jacquy was more forgiving with his students when we filmed him during his macaroon class. But it was later that day, at lunch, that we glimpsed what lay ahead. Jacquy told us how his obsessive fear of the competition had resulted in a surprising nightly ritual with his girlfriend. “Just as I am falling asleep Rachel has to tell me that Sebastien called and the MOF has been canceled …really canceled.” This felt like the beginning of a story with someone who was about to do one of the most important things in his life. And, what a story it turned out to be — full of surprises, surprises for us and surprises for Jacquy.