The Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (M.O.F.) competition is the ne plus ultra of pastry-making. Chronicled in the documentary "Kings of Pastry" by D A Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, it makes Top Chef seems like child's play.
Like Top Chef, there are challenges to pass, foods to plate, and breathless race-against-the-clock montages of piping, pouring, and sugar pulling. Tensions run high. Tears are shed.
But unlike a reality show competition, none are competing against each other—just themselves. After the 16 finalists are selected, there's hypothetically no limit on how many M.O.F.'s that can be titled—one competition is held every four years—but the discerning judges set too high a standard for that to ever happen.
As a result, the drama ends up being deeply personal. The main protagonist, Jacquy Pffeifer, is a co-founder of Chicago's French Pastry School and has baked for everyone from the Sultan of Brunei to Oprah.
His co-founder and mentor is Sebastien Cannon, who's already earned his striped M.O.F. collar. We feel a bit of the professional tightrope he's walking: will he live up to the high standard that he teaches to his students? What about the support of his girlfriend and daughter?
The first half is charming but takes awhile to find its bearings. The real momentum comes in the second half when proper competition in Lyon rides in on an adrenaline and sugar-spiked high. We see the chefs filing in at 4 a.m., lining up like grim-faced soldiers awaiting battle. In an interview, contestant Regis Lazard recounts how he ruined his first shot at the title when he dropped his sculpture on the stairs, foreshadowing of what's to come.
As the contestants begin pulling sugar ribbons and shaping elaborate flora, the same inevitable disasters happen.
When one chef's sugar sculpture dissolves on his worktable, the emotional wallop packed into that split second is palpable. The screening audience gasped audibly as the chef crumpled along with his creation.
That gasp is well set-up. The documentary spends plenty of time acquainting us with the feverish devotion and sacrifice required by the M.O.F. competition. Pffeifer can't sleep at night unless his loved ones say the M.O.F. has been canceled.
Making that passion so compulsively watchable are the very real stakes: dreams of winning are as treacherously fragile as one of Pffeifer's fabulous sugar Faberge eggs.
To see where Kings of Pastry is screening, check out their website.