Longtime duo Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s latest doc follows master chefs on their quest for excellence. It’s surprisingly thrilling, and very sweet.
It may not sound like your typical thriller: a labor of love documentary about 16 pastry chefs who have risen to the top of their field, invited to compete against themselves in an effort to prove worthy of excellence in the French tradition. Yet Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s latest doc, Kings of Pastry, is incredibly thrilling, with twists and turns and roller coasters of emotion that will have you on the edge of your seat.
The Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (aka the MOF, to those of us who took German in high school) is a competition held every 3-4 years, designed to single out the best craftsmen—and they are usually men—in France, across a number of trades. Lasting a grueling three days, the pastry competition is one of the toughest: the resulting buffet tables are immaculate works of art, including painstakingly delicate sugar sculptures, delicate lollipops you’d never find in a Halloween basket, and the most intricate of cakes. Out of the 16 finalists, all could be named MOF at the end of the competition, awarded the red-white-and-blue collar that signifies excellence—but the slightest, most heartbreaking of mistakes always preclude that outcome.
For their film, Hegedus and Pennebaker (The War Room, Don’t Look Back, Monterey Pop) focus primarily on Jacquy Pfeiffer, a French-born chef who has taken root in Chicago, where he owns the simply named French Pastry School. When we first meet him, Pfeiffer has been preparing for the contest for months, progressing through a series of competitions to reach the finals: the three-day competition in Lyon. His days are now filled with dry runs—working out the intricacies of sugar and eggs and butter and flour that are the basis of his craft, and perfecting his art, which can be adversely affected by the smallest shifts in temperature, humidity, or touch.
Over the next 84 minutes, Kings of Pastry follows him to France, offering for the first time a behind-the-scenes look at such a competition. We meet his fellow-chefs, who have similar stories of lifelong dedication and pursuit of dreams, and we hold our breath as sculptures are moved from the kitchen to the display tables. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Last week, we visited with the filmmakers in their Upper West Side Offices, where we talked about permission-less filmmaking, chocolate bustiers, and the perfect lollipop.
Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker
Tribeca: Can you talk a bit about how you learned about the MOF?
Chris Hegedus: Our friend Flora Lazar moved to Chicago, and she decided to take a class at the French Pastry School. She learned about Jacquy Pfeiffer going to compete in this epic contest in France, to get this red, white and blue collar that these awarded chefs wear. We wondered what this was all about, so we flew out to Chicago and met Jacquy, and it just sounded like this unbelievable, bizarre, grueling event that had such importance and prestige for trades in France. It seemed very different from the food channel competitions to us—it was really a lifelong, cultural, historic award.
Tribeca: It’s also not a competition—everyone can win.
D.A. Pennebaker: Right, it’s a club you get to join. The school is a very big operation. You see 40-50 people learning how to do something they never thought they’d learn in their lives. You wonder: Why would he go to a competition in France, when it takes him out of his place for six months or so, and costs so much? So you think, there’s more here than meets the eye.
Tribeca: How did Jacquy end up in America?
Chris Hegedus: A lot of chefs come to the U.S. because it’s lucrative; the opportunities are limited in France. Jacquy had started working for chefs around the world—he worked for the Sultan of Brunei…
D.A. Pennebaker: 10,000 people coming for lunch, and desserts… in the jungle! People had to be flown in by helicopter. I mean, these are things you just don’t believe happen.
Chris Hegedus: He and Sebastien both ended up in Chicago, and they both had this passion for teaching—there is so much interest in high-quality French cooking, and they wanted to pass on what they knew. They started teaching out of this loft area, and it’s grown into this school.
D.A. Pennebaker: He grew up in this interesting area of France, the Alsace—part German, part French. It’s the most beautiful place in the world—in the fall, the colors all turn that incredible gold—[but] you can see growing up there you might want to find some other place if you have any ambition. To me, Jacquy is the American who had to come here to find that out. He has a very American attitude toward work, his career, and his customers.
Chris Hegedus: The French Pastry School does these exquisite events, and one is [a fundraiser] where they do a chocolate fashion show. I didn’t include it in the film, but I have put a clip up on kingsofpastry.com. [See below.] Some of them are entirely made of chocolate: corsets, miniskirts, gown decorations…
Tribeca: It’s such a pure art, but also so ephemeral. Think about how long you could wear a chocolate dress—not long!
D.A. Pennebaker: Warm-breasted women, beware!
Tribeca: Can you talk a bit about the process? How often did you film, and for how long?
Chris Hegedus: Basically, we met Jacquy in July, and the contest was in October. We liked each other, and decided to go on this adventure together. It was August in France, and we tried to get a hold of the MOF organization, and everyone was on vacation. We couldn’t get any permissions, but we decided to go ahead anyway. We filmed several times that month, and then in September, Jacquy was going to Alsace, so we had to make the decision to go without funding. (No one is going to fund something without knowing you have the permissions.) But since we pretty much shot this ourselves, it wasn’t a big expense or risk; we didn’t have to hire a crew.
[While in France,] we looked for some other candidates, but we filmed very little with [them], because it was hard: they didn’t know who we were, and they were scared—they were at this critical point of trying to get ready for this really big competition. We did what we could, and a lot of films are like that, where you have to work within the parameters you have.
So basically we ended up in October going to Lyon to the competition, meeting the officials, and getting permission on the spot. The permission had a lot of qualifications: they said, “You can do it, the chefs agreed, but we have to see what it’s like.” They had never let anyone in to film—or even watch—before. “So after every night, they will decide whether they want to have you again.” So we went through this process each night.
On the 3rd day, they were like, “Okay, [the chefs] are really scared now, to have you there. Everybody is going to be carrying their sculptures to the buffet table, and you can’t go running all around. You have to stand at the end of the table in this little square, and that’s where you have to stay.”
D.A. Pennebaker: It’s basically a home movie, as most of our films are. No lights.
Tribeca: Were there more storylines that you cut—other chefs?
Chris Hegedus: We had a couple of other chefs. [laughs] There were too many white men with somewhat receding hairlines with white chef uniforms on. It got kind of complicated to kind of know your characters, so we had to [edit some out] and focus on just three chefs.
Tribeca: The lack of women in the film was striking. Why do you think that is? Has a woman ever competed in the MOF? Chris Hegedus: The MOF translates to “master craftsman,” and it covers like 160 categories of different trades—everything from carpentry to taxidermy. It’s really eccentric, [but] the most prestigious ones are the culinary, the wines. There are hot food, cheese, chocolate… One of the most grueling is the pastry, because it’s three days; the hot food one is just five hours. But the year we filmed, a woman won the hot cuisine MOF, and when Sarkozy gave the awards, there was massive applause, and it was a very big deal.
But it’s very medieval, very old-fashioned. It was kind of a guys’ profession, where boys would decide they want to be a chef, and they would apprentice with a baker. Some went on to culinary schools, and some just continued their careers through apprenticeships.
Tribeca: It plays like a tense thriller—my heart was racing, and I felt so much for these guys. How did you build the suspense? And I know it sounds horrible, but were you (in some small way) rooting for a disaster?
Chris Hegedus: When we started filming, and we were starting to figure out what this whole process was about, [some MOFs] tried to describe what it was like: “You’ll see. Things will break, things will fall, people will be crying.” It was hard to understand, but it was part of what encouraged us to go, because it seemed like there would be drama. The stakes were high [for these chefs]; it was really their life dream, and that’s what you want, to film people during their quest for their dream.
When things happen, you’re happy for your storyline, but at the same time, there were aspects of disappointment that were really wrenching to us, especially when you become friends with your characters. It also makes access harder—people like to have you around when they are doing well, and then...
I think the twists and turns in the film really work to its advantage. It was a very tense thing to film—I could hardly hold the camera after a while. Everyone is so quiet, and so concentrated. Every minute for 3 days was accounted for, so every time anything goes wrong, they have to adapt. By the end, they are juggling recipes, sculptures, just to get something out there for the final buffet.
D.A. Pennebaker: People think of directors like, “You stand over there, you over there.” We don’t do that at all—we don’t know how to do that. Our role is really as watchers. The discipline of our camera is really our focus.
Tribeca: The creations were truly works of art. In particular, that scene with Jacquy pulling the sugar ribbons—it was just so beautiful. It was nice the way you were able to balance the tension with such quiet moments of pure art.
Chris Hegedus: It is something that I didn’t understand to that degree until I made this film—this occupation is so much more than pastrymaking. It’s engineering, it’s chemistry, it’s art. Jacquy took glassblowing lessons in order to help his sugar sculpture. It’s a very complex field.
Tribeca: Did the pastries taste as good as they looked? Did you get to sample things?
D.A. Pennebaker: A little, not much.
Chris Hegedus: I can’t believe you’re saying that! [laughs] Penny tasted so much. I can’t believe you just said that.
D.A. Pennebaker: Well, just little bits.
Chris Hegedus: Well, it’s true that during the competition, we couldn’t taste anything, of course, and that was really torture. But yes, we tasted plenty, with many chefs. And it was really exquisite, especially this cake we have on our poster.
D.A. Pennebaker: I got a bite of that. It was incredible. My strongest memory from the whole thing was that piece of cake. And being prevented physically from diving into the wastebasket when he threw it out!
Chris Hegedus: They had to make these lollipops for kids, and Jacquy’s were absolutely delicious. They were kind of a spinoff of peanut butter and jelly, but they were really exquisite jam with dark chocolate disks around it, with nuts. You bit into it, and it was an unbelievable sensation.
In Alsace, we were at this bakery of his friend, who had won the World Cup of breadbaking, TWICE. And he was in this little town that had about 80 people in it. The breads that his mother brought out that morning—they were out of the oven, into our mouths.
D.A. Pennebaker: Food in general in France was always extremely good, and memorable. I was surprised they could maintain that quality—from little places to little places.
Tribeca: I guess it’s just generation after generation, handed down.
D.A. Pennebaker: Yeah, I guess so. You’re just raised where you take it all in without thinking, and then you react in some wonderfully mechanical way, where you put the right things in.
Tribeca: What do you want people to take from the film? Do you hope they are inspired by this quest for perfection?
Chris Hegedus: In a lot of ways, this film is similar to many of our films—from The War Room to Don’t Look Back—about people who are incredibly passionate about what they do and who are pushing themselves toward their dream in some way. I also think the idea of what this contest is about—recognizing excellence in the trade crafts—is something really important in society.