Fascinated by French pastry chefs — no, really

By Jayson Jacoby January 04, 2013 11:47 am


By Jayson Jacoby

Baker City Herald Editor

There is no subject which could conceivably interest me less than the exploits of French pastry chefs.

Pastry chefs from any country, come to that.

And so it is a testament to the skill of documentary filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus that I recently sat for nearly an hour and a half and watched.... the exploits of French pastry chefs.

But I didn’t just sit there, fuming about the time I had wasted and would never recoup, and wishing instead that I were watching “The Hobbit,” a film which, I suspect, doesn’t mention chefs of any sort.

I was in fact captivated by the stories that unfolded on the big screen at the Eltrym during a New Year’s Eve showing of “Kings of Pastry” sponsored by the Baker Art Guild.

I laughed.

I cringed.

I didn’t cry.

But it was a near thing.

Mainly, though, I cared.

I truly cared about a bunch of Frenchmen who whine because the sugar is too dry and because the egg yolks are too yellow and who grouse about the consistency of nougatine.

Whatever that is.

The reason I cared is that Pennebaker and Hegedus conveyed, with the almost voyeuristic intimacy that marks the finest documentaries, the absolute obsession that drives people to ascend to the pinnacle of their profession.

That obsession, and the ways it reveals itself, is so compelling that it renders the profession itself of only passing interest.

Well, maybe not precisely passing.

Watching people turn a substance as simple as sugar into sculptures that could easily pass for bouquets of tropical flowers is fascinating in itself.

Even for a person who considers a well-executed maple bar a major culinary achievement — that’s me — there is a strong element of “how in the heck do they do that?” in “Kings of Pastry.”

I’ve been similarly entranced watching master mechanics slip pushrods into a V-8.

The film’s focus is a competition that takes place every four years in France to determine which handful of pastry chefs deserve to wear a special blue, white and red collar.

There is, so far as I can tell, no equivalent event in the U.S.

Indeed, most food-related programming on our TV networks or cinema emphasize gluttony rather than artistry — how many pounds of bacon can you cram into that sandwich?

(Never enough, apparently.)

The obvious comparison with the French pastry chef contest, given the once-every-four-years interval, are the Olympic games.

And there are similarities — intense practice sessions interspersed with bouts of self-doubt, hugs with wives and children, a considerable amount of sweating.

The defining characteristic for me, though, about “Kings of Pastry” is how effectively it shows how vast the gulf is between the average practitioner of some pursuit — any pursuit — and the truly elite.

I know nothing of pastry, to be sure.

I could no more construct the sugar sculptures these chefs assembled than I could unclog a calcified aorta.

But now at least I understand that these Frenchmen have distilled their natural talents, through sweat and tears — and, given all the knives involved, probably blood too — into a skill every bit as formidable as that displayed by a surgeon in the operating room, or by a quarterback in an NFL stadium.

There is, it seems to me, a unique beauty to watching people who have honed a particular attribute, whether it be work or play, to the finest point achievable by human hands.

By the end of “Kings of Pastry,” as you watch the 16 chefs emerge from the ultimate competitive crucible of their lives, the likes of which hardly any of us will ever experience, I expect that you’ll understand why grown men would cry over matters as seemingly trivial as whether they get to wear a corny-looking collar.

You might even shed a tear yourself.

It doesn’t matter that you burn toast as often as you get it nicely browned, or that you consider the Pop Tart a landmark achievement in pastry history.

When the toil of four years and the dream of a lifetime can be rendered, in effect, worthless by a minor slip of a hand and the fragility of spun sugar, drama is guaranteed.

And emotion.