Kings of Pastry
“Kings of Pastry,” opening at Film Forum on September 15, is the new documentary from the famed, husband and wife, filmmaking team of D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus (“Don’t Look Back,” “The War Room,” “Monterey Pop”). While many of their past works have provided insightful looks at well known subjects, their current work documents perhaps a lesser known subject, French pastry chef competitors.
Far from being a glorified “Food Network” reality show “Kings of Pastry” is a compelling, suspenseful, at points heart breaking, look at a competition in which 16 competitors seek to win the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF), the country’s highest honor for pastry creation, held every four years. The competitors gather in Lyon, France for a tension filled three days of creating everything from chocolate creations, cream puffs and elaborate sugar sculptures that threaten to break (and often do) at the slightest provocation. The film’s primary subject is pastry chef Jacquy Pfeiffer, co-founder of Chicago’s French Pastry School. Pfeiffer leaves his family to travel to Alsace, where he is from originally, to practice for, and then participate in, the competition.
I had the privilege of speaking with Pennebaker and Hegedus about “Kings of Pastry.” “We wanted to eat a lot of pastry,” Hegedus humorously explained when I asked what had attracted them to the subject. She then pointed out that, “Really, our subjects are pretty varied. Some of them are people who aren’t famous from the outset as well. The subject came to us from a friend of ours who graduated from French pastry school and told us about this competiton. It sounded kind of wonderfully bizarre…A lot of our stories are about people who are really good at what they do and are very passionate.”
On their ability, in “Kings of Pastry,” to seemingly always have the camera in the right place at the right time Pennebaker explained, “Making films is really a game of luck. The harder you work, the luckier you get.”
In terms of the over all production Hegedus explained, “We did it in a very small way, this whole film, because we didn’t really have access (permission to shoot the actual MOF competition) until the last minute, which meant we couldn’t raise any money.” The fact that they started shooting the background and preparation sequences without knowing if they would be allowed to shoot the actual competition meant that they risked not having footage vital for the completion of the film. When asked what direction they would have taken the film if they had not been allowed to shoot the actual competition Pennebaker replied, “We could have slit our wrists.” Hegedus added, “You have to do what you can. I mean this film had a lot of twists and turns we didn’t even know about even after the competition ended.”
In order to capture the chefs during the competition Hegedus explained, “It was done in a very low key, simple way. We weren’t allowed to use any boom mics or lights or anything.” She explained that they could not even use wireless, radio microphones because the radio waves actually disrupted the very sensitive scales that the chefs used to measure ingredients. “We did it in home movie style almost (using onboard camera mics.) That’s one of the challenges when you make documentaries. You have to work within these restrictions and still try to tell the story as best you can,” Hegedus explained. Pennebaker added “You film the thing that happens. You many want to change it. You may not like what happens, but that’s the film you’ve got and if you’re going to be true to it, you sort of have to live with it and make that work.”
Kings of Pastry, Directors D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, 2010,
First Run Features, 84 minutes