Kings of Pastry: Interview with directors
Award winning filmmakers, D A Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, (Dont Look Back, The War Room) take us behind-the-scenes with exclusive first time access to France’s oldest and most prestigious pastry competition – the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France – in Kings of Pastry, screening at the Bermuda Documentary Film Festival on Friday.
The Meilleurs de France is an epic three-day test of passion, perseverance, artistry, and technical skill. The blue, white and red striped collar worn on the jackets of the winners is more than the ultimate recognition for every pastry chef – it is a dream and an obsession. Similar to the Olympics, the contest takes place every four years and requires that the chefs not only have extraordinary talent and nerves of steel but also a lot of luck.
Director Chris Hegedus grew up with pastry in her genes. Like most of the chefs in Kings of Pastry, her grandfather apprenticed at 16 with a baker in Europe. He immigrated to New York City and in the 1920s he opened two, elegant confectionary ‘tea rooms’ where he created his signature chocolates and ice creams. Her great-grandfather was chef for one of New York City’s most famous German restaurants and cooked for the Roosevelt family during the summers at their home on Campobello Island.
On the other side of the family was Chris’s Hungarian grandmother, whose reputation for delicious cooking and baking was famous throughout her Eastern European community in Bethlehem, Pa. “When other kids in the 1950s were eating Betty Crocker birthday cakes mixed from a box I would be sent a 10-layer hazelnut “Dobos Torte” sponge cake with a caramel filling, mocha buttercream icing and a burnt-sugar glaze. Every year we would count how many layers Grammy would make for the cake. She lived until she was 94 so we felt blessed!”
So when Hegedus and Pennebaker were looking for their next project, the subject of Kings of Pastry seemed zen. They heard about the Meilleurs de France competition when their friend, Flora Lazar, decided to jettison a prestigious career in public service and enter Chicago’s highly regarded French Pastry School to pursue her dream of becoming a French pastry chef. After graduating, Flora told the filmmakers that her teacher, chef Jacquy Pfeiffer, an award-winning French chef from Alsace and one of the founders of the school, was competing in the legendary M.O.F. competition. She thought it would make an interesting story for an article.
“It sounds like it would make a terrific documentary,” replied director, Chris Hegedus. “It had a lot of the personal drama that we look for in our films,” added Pennebaker. Like The War Room, it was a buddy story: Jacquy’s coach for the competition was Sebastien Canonne, who had started the school with him. Sebastien won the competition several years earlier and wore the coveted blue, white and red collar that told the world he was a M.O.F — a member of France’s culinary elite.
Filming began at the French Pastry School in Chicago where Jacquy was preparing for the competition. Each M.O. F. competition has a different theme – this year’s was marriage – and Jacquy was hard at work designing a complex raspberry caramel, vanilla mousse, hazelnut wedding cake, shaped like a half dome, that he hoped would impress the judges with its originality. Every competing chef would have to design and construct a complete buffet presentation suitable for a wedding, using only edible materials to make fragile sugar sculptures that would tower elegantly above the cakes and pastries. Jacquy figured his buffet might require as many as 40 different recipes. “One of the perks of making a pastry film is that you get to sample,” admitted Pennebaker. “But we realised right off that these elaborate pastries were delicacies that we had rarely encountered.”
In France the film also follows French chefs Regis Lazard and Philippe Rigollot, two other finalists preparing for the competition. Regis works at a patisserie in nearby Luxembourg and is being coached by the pastry chef for French President Nicolas Sarkozy. For all the finalists, the strain of the contest, both financially and personally, is enormous. Regis’ wife explains, “When we built this house, before building the bedrooms and kitchen, we built this special kitchen in the basement for him to practice for the M.O.F. It was his dream so I let him do it again, but if he doesn’t get it this time, that’s it.”
Philippe Rigollot is the pastry chef at the renowned Maison Pic, the only three-star restaurant in France owned by a woman. Growing up in the bakery where his mother worked, it has been Philippe’s lifelong dream to wear the tri-color collar of the M.O.F. chefs. His wife, a chocolatier, also works at Maison Pic. She helps her husband prepare for the competition along with two other coaches, each highly regarded M.O.F’s.
Jacquy, Regis and Philippe are three of 16 finalists chosen from 70 French pastry chefs who competed in the grueling two-day semi-final process earlier that year. For the final competition they traveled to Lyon, long considered the country’s culinary capital, where Paul Bocuse, the father of contemporary French cuisine, has his elegant restaurant.
During the next three days of mixing, piping, and sculpting, the finalists create an astounding array of products for their required buffets. All their work is done under the watchful eyes of judges, who must decide if the competitors live up the standard required to receive the coveted collar from President Sarkozy.
Kings of Pastry will be shown at the Bermuda Documentary Film Festival on Friday October 22 at 6.30 p.m. in the Tradewinds Auditorium of the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute. Tickets are available now at www.bdatix.bm.