Three Imaginary Girls

Seattle's Indie-Pop Press – Music Reviews, Film Reviews, and Big Fun

{Kings of Pastry will be playing at the Northwest Film Forum from November 26th through December 2nd}

It’s always impressive to watch people who have strived to be the best in the world at something, better than humans really should probably have the right to be.  Looked at properly, whether this is the people in The West Wing (at least filtered through Aaron Sorkin), or Steve Wiebe in The King of Kong, it’s bound to be a fascinating experience.  The directors of Kings of Pastry prove this once again as they follow the attempt of 16 world class pastry chefs to be recognized as a Meilleur Ouvrier de France (Best Craftsman in France) – the elite ranks of chefs allowed to wear the distinct tri-colored MOF kitchen collar.  Over the course of less than 90 minutes more emotional attachment to the partcipants and dramatic tension is generated than in most Hollywood blockbusters.

Achieving the rank/title of MOF – the grandmaster blackbelt of the culinary world – is a lifelong aspiration for all the competitors.  As opposed to the various cooking contest “reality” shows these days, the process isn’t about being the sole winner, it’s about achieving a level of perfection possible only for the most skilled artisans.  I was a little skeptical going in as I’m absolutely not a fan of the “food as competition” shows that seem to be popping up faster than Starbucks shops these days, but here it’s about people putting in extremely hard work and time (while praying for luck) to achieve recognition in their profession.

The competition is held every four years and spans three days, during which the the chefs produce a broad range of confections. Ranging from the beautiful and delicious looking to pieces that are simply works of art (and probably not for actual consumption). The practical aspects of moving the pieces into position for a final judging enter into the picture – sugar is fragile and apparently can shatter out of nowhere. There is a zero tolerance approach to bad luck if you want to win. By the time a sugary explosion happens to one of the contestants I was interested enough in their success that I literally gasped out loud. It sneaks up on you slowly, but by the time the competition rolls around I was emotionally invested in the outcome and rooting for everyone to win.

Jacquy Pheiffer who co-founded Chicago’s French Pastry School (which we’re told is the only cooking school in the US focused exclusively on dessert) receives the most screen time and is the chef we get to know the best. Of the sixteen, there’s also an additional but lesser focus on two of the others. One of these is Philippe Rigollot, who for me was the most attractive personalities in the film – especially as we learn his “origin story” which involves hanging out as a child at the bakery where his mom worked.  Perhaps you’re the sort of cold hearted son of a bitch who won’t get a bit teary eyed listening to him recounted his idyllic (and very French) childhood memories that shaped his life.  But it turns out, I am not.

The nice part is that in theory everyone can win – though they won’t of course.  The judges clearly want the finalists to be successful even as they maintain impossibly high standards.  The president of the organization is visibly sad that he cannot announce all the participants of winners.  The camaraderie  in the kitchen is moving to watch.  It’s almost as impressive as the technical skills on display.

I was COMPLETELY blown away by some of the artistic creations as well and the technical perfection watching chefs pull and manipulate ribbons of colored sugar as if it was an extension of their bodies.  Not to mention blown sugar using glass blowing techniques – wow, just wow…

Not that the film is perfect. The beauty of the pastry and sugar art comes through in spite of what felt like overly simplistic flat cinematography. That sort of extremely natural and simple “video” look probably was fine for the directors’ earlier films such as The War Room – but it occasionally seems criminal when trying to better ogle the desserts.  Also, it probably also wouldn’t hurt to drop the little French melody that is used to cut together way too many of the scenes – it’s not a Woody Allen movie after all…

Overall though, Kings of Pastry is definitely worth adding to your to-do list.  If you don’t head out to the Northwest Film Forum, you’ll want to add it to your future viewing plans.  It’s inspirational to watch people strive so hard to be the best in the world at something, especially as these people come across as civil and well adjusted. It’ll make you feel good about humanity.  I’ll likely be thinking about some of these contestants every time I look at dessert, at least for a while.  I’d imagine this goes without saying – while you should go see the film, you probably don’t want to go before dinner.