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The Kings of Pastry

Years ago I used to compete in chef’s competitions on a regular basis.  I finally gave it up because it was extremely time consuming and stressful.  Part of me wants to do it again, but the more rational part of me, when thoughts of returning to the arena form, frantically waves me off like a sailor waving planes away from a damaged aircraft carrier.  There really is nothing else like culinary competition and for me it is the very definition of a love/hate relationship. 

It is no wonder that I absolutely loved the documentary, “Kings of Pastry” perhaps even before I watched it.  I was so pleased that one of the masters of the form, D.A.Pennebaker, had turned his camera upon one of the most exclusive and prestigious of culinary competitions/tests in the world.  The competition for the French MFA (Master of Pastry) designation is, for pastry chefs, the Top of the Mountain.  It is like the World Cup and Super Bowl combined.  I am not a pastry chef.  Pastry chefs are the badassed genius architects of the culinary world.  I’m a hot food line/catering chef and I can barely bake a biscuit let alone come close to what a professional  pastry chef can do.  Pastry chefs have to have a special combination of craftsmanship, engineering skill, and artistic vision.  I know some pastry chefs who have tried this MFA competition and they are some of the strongest men I know.  You have to be strong mentally and physically.  You have to be able to create exquisite, edible objects under the most appalling pressure cooker situation; with judges watching your every move.  I know the feeling of having a judge at your elbow while you try to make magic happen as the clock is ticking and that is why it was so gratifying to watch this film.  Not only is it a subject near and dear to my heart, but it was a bit of redemption for me as well. 

The film chronicles the triumphs and failures of a handful of chefs from the beginning of their journey to the MFA competition to the end.  It made me feel better seeing some of these master craftsmen at the top of their game, crumble under the enormous pressure.  Or have random accidents ruin their chances. Or see the fruits of their labors destroyed because of poor planning or lousy decision making.   I empathized with every failure and triumph because I have been there and I know a little bit about how it feels to have months of practice and work come up short.  In the world of true professional culinary completion there is either first place/gold medal or nothing.  Second place is the first loser.  There is none of this Food Network Challenge bullshit about giving out prize money for every slot.  You either win or you lose.  It can be ego crushing in the extreme.  Which is why I hesitate to do it again.  However, the rush and the learning opportunities are enormous.  I’ve rubbed shoulders with and have gotten advice from some of the most talented cooks in the world due to my participation in chef competitions.  But I think I’ll continue to listen to that voice yelling from far away, “Don’t do it!”.  Anyway, I whole heartedly recommend “Kings of Pastry” for even those not a bit interested in food.  The film is a study in excellence and the lengths some folks will go in order to get there.

PS I don’t know why there are no female pastry chefs included in the MFA competition portrayed in the film.  I know the competition is open to all who qualify and some of the early winners of the coveted red, white and blue collar were women – chefs at this level (even traditionally chauvinist French chefs) could really give a rat’s ass about what sex you are.  Up on the Mountain Top all anyone cares about is the work and being the best at it.


Mar. 28th, 2011 11:43 am (UTC)
You've made me want to see this movie.