Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Movie Review: Kings of Pastry

It has been a while since I did a movie review, but after seeing a mid-afternoon Sunday screening of Kings of Pastry, I felt like it was time to brush the dust off the movie critic "hat" and write up some of my thoughts on the experience. I wish I could say that I had been planning on seeing this film for some time, but I only discovered that it was showing two days ago when the Cleveland Museum of Art's Facebook page was updated with a link to the movie. With both a Friday evening and Sunday afternoon showing, I decided that the Sunday time would better fit into my schedule. Having gotten feedback from a friend about how packed the room was during the Friday screening, I decided to make an appearance about a half hour early to ensure I had a ticket.

Ticket for Kings of Pastry
Fortunately, while the theater was pretty full today, there were still about a quarter of the seats empty. The only information I knew going into today's screening was that the film was about the MOF, the Meilleur Ouvrier de France (which translates to best craftsmen in France), a title bestowed upon precious few pastry chefs who have demonstrated through a grueling three day trial that they are experts in various forms of pastry: cakes, candy making, chocolate work, sugar work, sculpture, colors, and flavors.

The movie follows three MOF finalists, Jacguy Pfeiffer, Phillippe Rigollot, and Regis Lazard, as they prepare for what is to be a highlight of their professional careers. Preparations begin months, if not years before the actual examination as the certification is only offered every four years. Many of the chefs have made two or more attempts to gain the title and it is taken so seriously in France that it is illegal to claim to be a MOF and wear the red, white, and blue striped collar if, in fact, you are not an MOF.

The first half of the movie is spent setting up the story lines of the primary characters, showing family and professional life, intense scrutiny from coaches and friends, and trial runs of everything from cake making to sugar sculptures and chocolate show pieces. My favorite moment during this portion of the film was when Jacguy, one of the co-founders of the French Pastry School in Chicago, walks the audience how he constructed a "wedding" cake out of nearly ten layers of mousse, genoise, dacquoise, ganache and finally finishes it with a simple airbrushing. He makes an extra to take home to his family only to have his young daughter look at the outside of the cake and naively claim how "simple" it looked.

I was a little worried that I wouldn't get invested in these characters and the trials and tribulations of achieving the MOF award, but I have to say that for all of the time spent setting up the story lines, the three days of examination really drew me in completely. While the jury (the other MOF chefs who were present to judge the contestants' entries) was obviously hypercritical of every flavor and technical flaw, they also showed themselves to be compassionate and supportive of the candidates. At one point during the examination, the absolute worst possible event occurs to one of the chefs, a shattered piece of sugar sculpture. As the chef breaks down and ponders the unthinkable of simply quitting, the other MOF chefs fortify around him and give him the encouragement he needs to salvage what he can. That was probably one of the most touching moments in the film.

At the end of the examination when the buffet tables have to be filled with each of the participant's pieces, you really get a sense of the urgency for how short a time period was given for such monumental tasks. It doesn't matter if the piece is striking and perfect; if it's not on that table, it will not be judged. As the film progresses, it is clear that these three days have completely drained the men emotionally, intellectually, and physically. One tired and frustrated chef claims that regardless of the outcome, he will never do this again. He has had to put so much of his life on hold while preparing and participating for this that he repeatedly emphasizes how entirely empty he feels inside.

Of the sixteen MOF finalists, only a select few receive the award. As I watched the tearful pronouncement of the winners, I truly felt the joy for the chefs who attained this rarefied level of certification, as well as sadness for the majority who didn't achieve their goal. For me, this movie did a fantastic job of taking me on a roller coaster ride. The first half of the movie felt like that slow, gradual climb to the top of the first hill. Once the MOF examination started and all the way to the very end, it was a constant twisting and turning, changing directions in an instant, until at the very end, you pull into the station and finally come to a complete stop.

In an age when Hollywood constantly bombards audiences with the latest technical craze and special effects and puts character investment at the very bottom of the list, it is refreshing to find a film that relies totally on the human drama and the characters that make up the dossier. Kings of Pastry was a fun and consuming film and the level of skill required to create the breathtaking show pieces out of chocolate and pulled and blown sugar was simply amazing. Completely family friendly (although reading comprehension is required as there are sub-titles), this is a film that will be on my "must see again" list of movies. I suggest you add it to your list as well.

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