Recording a three-day competition in Lyon, France, in which sugar is heated, stretched, and blown into delicate, rococo shapes, Kings of Pastry has none of the shame-and-humiliation rituals of reality-TV cook-offs like Top Chef. Though Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker's food-fetishizing documentary offers a welcome break from the sensibilities and manufactured crises of Bravo and TLC shows, it too squanders opportunities to go beyond easily digested human-interest drama.
The film follows three of 16 finalists vying to become a Meilleur Ouvrier de France (Best Craftsman of France) at an event held, like the Olympics, every four years. Receiving the most screen time is Jacquy Pfeiffer, an ex-pat who's been living in Chicago, where he started the French Pastry School with Sébastien Canonne, who helps his pal train at Pfeiffer's childhood home in Alsace and figure out ways to shave seconds off piping wedding cakes.
In Luxembourg, we're introduced to Régis Lazard, making his second attempt at the contest and severely testing his wife's patience. First-time competitor Philippe Rigollot softly speaks of his work as the pastry chef at Maison Pic in southeastern France, the only three-star Michelin restaurant headed by a woman. This gender imbalance in high-end cuisine becomes even more glaring when you notice that all of the 16 pastry finalists are men (and white) and takes on extra meaning when judge Philippe Urraca warns the competitors about the grueling three days that lie ahead: "I don't mean to be harsh, but you have to be a man." (Turns out that Urraca is a bit of a crybaby himself.) The filmmakers show no curiosity about this all-male domain, much in the same way they fail to follow up on the nationalist anxiety articulated in Nicolas Sarkozy's blustery speech ("Excellence is earned!") presented to earlier contest winners, whose prize is a tricoleur collar. Sarko suggests that an emphasis on tradition and the fate of artisanal trades is integral to Gallic identity. But tootling along the French countryside to the soon excruciatingly jaunty Django Reinhardt score, Kings of Pastry continues its meringue-light focus.
The thickener in the mix is the spirited testimony of the three exceptional gastronomes whom Hegedus and Pennebaker profile. It's a pleasure listening to the trio talk about their training, aspirations, and gourmand philosophies; in Chicago, Pfeiffer notes of his native versus adopted home: "All-you-can-eat: That doesn't exist in France. The idea is to eat the best possible food but in small quantities."
When the spotlight is on a sweet delicacy that you would actually want (or is even physically possible) to put in your mouth, viewers get a privileged look at the art of composing a cream puff, a lollipop, a bazillion-layered wedding cake. But most of the culinary footage is devoted to documenting — in flat, dull DV — the finalists' pièce montée, or "sugar showpiece," in which sucrose is manipulated for its chemical properties and dessert becomes a weird, often tacky sculpture.
The fragility of these outlandish concoctions — Rigollot's showpiece is topped by what looks like the silhouette of Mr. Monopoly's head — gives the film its cheapest suspense as we wait for the crystallized substances to shatter (and many do). One man wins the blue-white-and-red collar, one reconsiders how much more time he's willing to spend in his custom-built basement kitchen, one ends up getting married — and Hegedus and Pennebaker shift the focus entirely, in the film's most cavity-inducing moment, from macaroons to the macarena.