Kings of Pastry is like a real life Roald Dahl story

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It’s not often that you get to see a grown man weep over an éclair, but that’s the French for you. In the documentary Kings of Pastry, a gaggle of Gallic pastry-makers do more than just cry; they train like Olympians in order to compete for the very prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France.

It’s an honour the French take extremely seriously, something amply demonstrated in the film’s opening scenes of Nicolas Sarkozy greeting a roomful of winners. The MoF is actually awarded across a broad spectrum of trades and crafts, but Kings of Pastry focuses on 16 dessert specialists gathered in Lyon for the competition.

Chief among the filmmakers’ subjects is the affable émigré Jacquy Pfeiffer, a co-founder of Chicago’s French Pastry School who returns to his birthplace of Alsace to prepare for the gruelling three-day event. He’s a slightly superstitious fellow, and very patient. He’d have to be since the team of peers and friends who gather to coach Pfeiffer (some of them wearing the distinctive red, white, and blue collar of the MoF) are under no compunction to sugar-coat their criticism (as it were).

There’s a slightly comical aspect to all this, notwithstanding the sheer depth, complexity, and skill that Pfeiffer and the other competitors bring to their work. But it does feel at times like we’re watching a scenario dreamt up by Roald Dahl, as fork-wielding Frenchmen in executive chef attire perform grimly detailed post-mortems on Pfeiffer’s bon-bons.

Perhaps most enthralling is the sugar-sculpture part of the contest, in which the pastry-makers construct insanely elaborate and highly fragile monuments out of taffy. According to some sadistic regulation, they then have to gingerly carry their sculptures down a long hallway into the showroom. Many don’t make it.

Pfeiffer actually builds shock absorbers into his cake-plate to minimize risk, while another competitor, Regis Lazard, recalls how he watched his masterpiece shatter into a million tiny sugar shards during his first attempt at the MoF. The poor man is clearly still traumatized by it.

It’s actually remarkable how solidly Kings of Pastry puts a knot in your stomach once the competition is underway, but then we are in the hands of master documentarians D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus. By the end, you might be weeping too.

Kings of Pastry screens on Tuesday (February 21) at 9:00 and 12:00 on the Knowledge Network

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