so Kings of Pastry, more or less as promised, provides an engaging, entertaining look at the concours Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, which is less a competition in the “there can be only one” sense than it is a sort of final exam for pastry chefs, a more exclusive and prestigious ‘red seal’ for the profession.
the characters are likeable, the human drama genuinely compelling, the tension high, and yes, there are lots of grown men crying. altogether though, what Kings of Pastry fails to be (in my opinion), is interesting. but to be fair, i don’t think this was their goal in the first place. it fits comfortably into a particular mould – the narrative of obsession, the balancing of family life and emotional health with devotion to one’s craft, is familiar and effective. but the film is not really about obsession, it doesn’t think about obsession, it merely features it. we are given no particular insight – or maybe only the barest flashes – into the world of pastry and pâtissiers, and for a film about people striving to be the “best craftsmen in France,” we learn very little about the craft itself.
perhaps my critique stems from the fact that a significant portion of the documentary is devoted to sugarcraft, rather than pastry proper – the elaborate and delicate showpieces of the competition, the bijoux, the sugar and chocolate sculptures. these are the great crowd pleasers of course, truly astonishing feats of ribbon and blown-sugar confectionery, but of somewhat less interest to me because they are effectively inedible. some time is devoted to the cakes, tartelettes, and various choux that populate the other categories of the MOF, but for the most part these magically appear on the screen; we do not see how these creations, the products of great artistry, training, and practice practice practice in their own right, come into being. they are the quotidian fare of pâtisserie, fading into obscurity beside the glitz of the showpieces that in their unchecked alienness and exoticism begin to remind one (well, me at least) of a Deetz sculpture. the bulk of the craftsmanship that is highlighted in the film concerns itself with turning food into nonfood (well, to the extent that pure sugar is “food”), and in the end, the craft of pastry is rendered no less opaque than at the outset.
one of the most interesting moments of the film, that passes almost unremarked, is Nicolas Sarkozy’s speech at the MOF ceremony. i unfortunately can’t find a clip to provide the speech verbatim, but in it he talks about how for too long there has been an inequality between how intellectual and physical labours have been treated, and that in the new France, the France of today, the hard work, devotion, and skill of the craftsman (or translated more directly, the worker [ouvrier]) shall be respected, the artificial separation of these labours collapsed. but where and how shall this be recognized? there is a certain irony that it is in this context where the craft is at its most rarefied that this valorization is conferred. in the great spirit of Carème, where presentation is so abstracted from eating (not that pastry is the most “functional” and sustaining of foods, but still..) that food becomes art, the craft is said to reach its apogee.
i do not intend this as a polemic against the pièce montée, and i have no firm ideas opinions about the relationship between craft and art. without the decorative flourish i would have a pretty insubstantial skeleton of a life. however, if Carème did indeed claim architecture to be the noblest of the arts, and pastry the highest form of architecture, we have to ask what, in this formulation, is architecture assumed to be for, and, subsequently, what is pastry supposed to do?
merely to dazzle? if so, then fine. a similar question could be asked of the documentary, and if the answer is to entertain, also fine. at one point the head judge of the MOF states that “Each product is a moral dilemma.” that he’s talking about a cream puff makes this cute, a perfect hyperbolic statement about the high stakes of the MOF, but what are the stakes exactly? certainly the men competing have devoted years of their lives in preparation, and to wear the stripes of a Maître Ouvrier has considerable career implications, but that is not all he is talking about. the politics of French food are fraught and complex, and very overtly tied to French national identity. it is no accident that the collar that only les Maîtres Ouvriers are permitted to wear is the French Tricolour. the moral dilemma is that of the dignity of the profession at war with human sympathy, and in a very banal way, that of the dignity of the Nation, of patriotic duty struggling with one’s basic fraternal co-feeling.
but none of this is talked about, and i do not begrudge Kings of Pastry, for not doing something it was not meant to do. i nonetheless left the theatre feeling that it was a trifle (pun intended) superficial. as, i have been discovering, have been the reviews. big competition, best of the best, grown men crying, “culinary Hurt Locker” (what?). that is indeed a “review,” but not one that really says anything or asks anything about the film or its subject.
out of good taste and respect for, i don’t know, i guess emotions as a thing, i will resist the urge to pursue a further analogy between human drama and sugary treats that are seductive but ultimately insubstantial. but you know i’m thinking it.