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A Spoonful of Sugar Helps The Medicine Go Down

By Brian Prisco | Film | October 14, 2010 |

By Brian Prisco | Film | October 14, 2010 |

When I still had cable television, I was addicted to the various food competitions and reality programming. It validated itself by actually demonstrating some type of artistry. I love watching the cake and candy contests, where with simple ingredients monstrous towers of baked goods would arise. The techniques are exquisite, especially sugar/chocolate sculptures. To know these intricate crystalline installations are entirely made of hardened candy is baffling, and the extents to which these sugar artists can weave is breathtaking. Of course, the stakes are kind of low. Sure, $10,000 and a little tin medal is adorable, but when you consider what the time and materials were to manufacture a 5-foot, several hundred pound cake are, it’s not very harrowing. Plus, they can always come back on a later episode, or next season.

Kings of Pastry, a documentary by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, follows several chefs competing for the Un Des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France in Pastrymaking, a judging that occurs once every four years in order to nominate chefs for the honor and designation of being one of the best pastry craftsmen in France, and thusly, the world. For three days straight, they work to craft sugar sculptures and pastries, all by themselves, and then winners are selected and given the honor. While it’s emotionally staggering to watch these men crumble after what is tantamount to a Herculean and Olympic effort, the entire thing feels like a particularly competent Food Network Challenge. Which doesn’t mean that it’s a bad movie — because I adore the hell out of that type of entertainment — it just means that it’s not informative so much as manipulative.

Sixteen chefs are permitted to contend for the M.O.F., and Pennebaker and Hegedus address three of them. What makes the M.O.F. so outstanding to me, and what makes the competition so wonderful, is that these men aren’t competing against each other, just their own artistry. Prizes aren’t awarded to a set number of winners, it’s based entirely on a merit score. They could give the award to all 16 chefs if they deserved it. And the judges themselves are M.O.F.’s, so they know exactly how magnificently difficult this task is, so they are just as supportive. When the sugar sculpture centerpiece one contestant spent days working on suddenly shatters into a million pieces, the judges are also overcome. They come by and hug the man, pat him on the shoulder, convince him to work quickly to just put anything up on the table, just to keep going, even though this assuredly means failure and having to work another four years of your life for that brief moment.

Like all works about competition, it’s heartstring tugging. The documentary produced audible gasps and moans from the audience watching with me. You want everyone to win, but they don’t, you want to cry for them. Unlike most competitions with assistants, it’s one man making everything, so you can see the exhaustion in their bodies and faces. These are also top-of-the-line artisans, so watching them essentially whip up sculpture out of food is brilliant. Sugar sculptures are notoriously fragile, so there are tons of moments where entire showpieces crackle and collapse. And the contestant just kind of sighs resignedly and says, “Well, that’s seventeen hours of work gone.” It’d be like watching Degas tear a rent across one of his dancers and then just chucking the entire painting into a trashcan. It’s total emotional porn, and it’s thoroughly effective.

Pennebaker and Hegedus could have spent a little more time on the actual pastry crafting and the history of the M.O.F., but that’s not what people want. You don’t watch reality competitions to learn, you watch them to see people fall apart. And these, these are French pastry chefs, so they’ve got the stability of a ballerina carrying Rosie O’Donnell over her head. People are constantly weeping, from disappointment, from joy, from stress. Watching these men cranking away making sugar flowers look effortless and spindles that shouldn’t be able to hold tiered cakes but do, is totally worth it. If you’re a foodie, or a fan of watching cake-baking and sugar artistry, then you will adore Kings of Pastry. But if you are looking for something more than empty calories, you’re gonna want to seek more substantial fare elsewhere.

Brian Prisco is the Los Angeles Film Critic for Pajiba. He is an actor and writer from North Hollywood, CA and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You can follow him on Twitter or email him ([email protected]).