There's a lot that is weirdly dated about the documentary Kings of Pastry, opening here tomorrow, October 8th, and made by Chris Hegedus and the legendary D. A. Pennebaker, the wife and husband duo famous for The War Room. There's the irritatingly cliched Django Reinhardt music, and the home-made on-a-budget look. But the subject — French pastry chefs who compete every four years for the right to wear the blue, white and red striped collar that signify that they are Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (also known as MOF) — is unexpectedly hypnotic.
Maybe it's because you're watching sixteen pale-faced, middle-aged dudes in blue jeans sculpting shiny, delicate flowers or meticulously gilding a cream puff or magically creating flowing ribbons out of pulled sugar. Or maybe it has something to do with how oceans of tension and dread are communicated Gallic-style with raised eyebrows and weary what-can-I-say shrugs.
In fact, not much of the visual language we associate with extravagant French pastries — people taking a bite and sighing over their deliciousness, beauty, and hi-cal richness — shows up onscreen. Rather, we get a portrait of making this beloved fare as the hardest of jobs, not for the short of patience or faint of heart.
In the world of Kings of Pastry, desserts are the yield of focused masculinity: one participant spends his pre-competition hours diagramming his desserts on a chalkboard like a football coach mapping out plays. But the documentary is also steeped in anguish, disappointment and tears. Real tears, too, not the disconcerting weep-fests of cheftestant Seth Caro on Top Chef: Just Desserts. They're the tears that roll down a grown man's face when he realizes that years of hard work and long-held dreams are swept aside in a second. So when bad fortune befalls a delicate sugar sculpture that is as crazy looking as a Dale Chihuly chandelier, it's a genuinely heartbreaking moment, a Pastry King's castle tumbling down.