For decades, director, producer, and cameraman D.A. Pennebaker has served as a peerless chronicler of the human condition and the artistic process in classics like Don’t Look Back, The War Room, and Monterey Pop. So it seems a little insulting, if not downright heretical, to complain that Kings Of Pastry, his latest collaboration with wife/longtime filmmaking partner Chris Hegedus, suffers because its subject matter overlaps considerably with the much-less-rarefied world of reality television. But it’s hard not to think of Kings Of Pastry as a PBS version of Top Chef: Masters.
Kings Of Pastry follows Jacquy Pfeiffer, co-founder of Chicago’s French Pastry School, as he travels back home to France to compete in a grueling three-day competition to win the title of M.O.F. (Meilleurs Ouvriers De France), an honor given to the country’s best culinary craftsmen. Pfeiffer is competing with himself to deliver the best possible performance, but he’s also competing with the finest cooks the world has to offer. Over the course of three days, their mettle and endurance are tested as they try to prove themselves worthy of one of the most prestigious distinctions in the culinary world.
Fans of cooking competitions will find much of Kings Of Pastry familiar, though the drama has been ratcheted way down, from “crowd-pleasingly melodramatic” to “tasteful and austere.” The quietly intense Pfeiffer isn’t one of those camera-friendly TV chefs who throw things, curse like sailors, and vamp for an unseen home audience. Like his peers in the competition, he’s an artisan who prefers to let his work speak for him. That’s admirable, but it also leads to a film in which suspense and conflict get muted even as the stakes grow higher. In a pressure-cooker environment, Pennebaker and Hegedus’ moderately engaging but ultimately unsatisfying documentary feels disappointingly lukewarm.