The Grand Prix of Pastry


Paul and Jill/flickr

Everyone should see the movie Kings of Pastry. It is less a movie about food than work, but work is the important drama of kitchens. The documentary is directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker. It is a strange food movie that sends you out of the theater without any hunger for dessert. The movie involves competitors in France's most prestigious contest for pastry. Most of what they make is beautiful and amazing to watch being created, but rarely anything you'd want to eat.

Years ago, I first encountered the intensity of this national contest while reading the introduction to The Roux Brothers on Patisserie, a cookbook worth buying if you can find a copy. The back cover photo shows Michel Roux and his brother Albert, tasting tartes under the none-too-encouraging gaze of their mother, Madame Germaine Roux. She does not look impressed.

Michel wrote the introduction, which I think is almost hilarious:

My body trembles as though I have been beaten, my throat is tight with emotion, my eyes brim with tears—they have just announced my name; my work as a patissier-confiseur has received the ultimate recognition and I have been have been honored with the title of "un des Meilleurs ouvriers de France 1976, Patissier-Confiseur"; in other words I am considered to be one of France's finest craftsmen in patisserie. Drained by the physical effort of the hundreds of hours of work and the nervous tension of the past few weeks, I hardly dare believe it. All I know is that I am here and I have succeeded. I stagger, I lurch forwards as though in a dream to collect that gold medal on its red, white and blue ribbon, the first to be presented by the President of the French Republic, monsieur Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

I am burning hot. I am consumed by that fire which burns in every craftsman who cares passionately about his work. This is the strongest emotion I have ever felt in all my thirty-five years. I feel intoxicated. My mind flashes back, as in a film, to the master whose apprentice I was, who awoke in the adolescent I was then that most precious love for this work, I can see the craftsmen who guided me, my colleagues and my friends, the MOF'S who gave me good advice—I see everyone who has helped to teach me my wonderful craft. To them I give my joy, my pride and my gratitude.

This may represent a confusion about sex and pastry, or even sex and patisserie.

Kings of Pastry is an easier movie to watch than Pressure Cooker, but the two movies might well be yoked together in a double bill focusing on effort. Pressure Cooker is about a year in the life of the Frankford High School culinary program, in Philadelphia, and the charismatic teacher, Wilma Stephenson, is the star. If Kings of Pastry is about craftsmen (and, I would say, artists) working at the peaks of their calling, then Pressure Cooker is about young people finding paths forward from very difficult situations. The movie slyly suggests that even success is tinged with sadness and bitterness. For the young people in this movie, success often means escape. For the craftsmen in Kings of Pastry, success means maybe ... being consumed by the fire of the passion for work.