Blog: Long Live the Kings | The French Pastry School

Blog: Long Live the Kings

Long Live the Kings
The French Pastry School |
September 29, 2010

Despite the international prestige that the acronym holds, if you were to call anyone in the states an “M.O.F.,” they might think you were insulting them. The reality is quite the opposite. M.O.F. stands for Meilleur Ouvrier de France—Best Craftsman of France. It is, in fact, the highest ranking one can earn as a French artisan, be it in anything from jewelry making to textile design, cabinetry to masonry, or savory cuisine to pastry arts. There are less than one hundred M.O.F.’s in pastry and Chef Sébastien Canonne, co-founder of the French Pastry School, is one of only five who live in the United States.

On the evening of September 15th, I found myself in the company of chefs wearing the tri-colored collar which symbolizes their M.O.F. status. Among them was Jacques Torres, owner of the eponymous chocolate shop where we’d be meeting later in the evening. For now, we were gathered in a theater at the Film Forum surrounded by some of the best in the industry. I settled in among other food writers, chefs and French Pastry School alumni.

We were all there to see Kings of Pastry, the newest movie made by renowned documentary filmmakers, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus—along with the production skills of French Pastry School graduate, Flora Lazar. The movie follows sixteen of the best pastry chefs in France as they prepare for the grueling but glorious three day test that could end with earning the coveted title of M.O.F.

The award was first created in 1924 when the quality of the country’s artisanal products was dwindling. Back then, as it is to this day, the pursuit of academic studies was becoming more highly valued than that of vocational skills. In the beginning of the film, as he is addressing the newly minted M.O.F.’s, French President Nicolas Sarkozy calls this concept “morally scandalous and economically inefficient.”

Those are fighting words and, as the movie begins, you get the feeling that the three highlighted chefs are preparing for the fight of their lives. We are soon introduced to Jacquy Pfeiffer, co-founder of the French Pastry School; Philippe Rigollot, pastry chef of Maison Pic, the Michelin three-star rated restaurant; and Regis Lazard, who is going through Rocky-style training for his second bout for the title.

Along with the prerequisite of already being one of the best at what you do, the training alone for the exam is both a mental and physical marathon. There are impossibly late nights, disappointments over shattered sugar, the high expectations of family and friends, and the necessity to leave them in order to practice for the big day. In one scene, Chef Jacquy explains how he asks his wife, Rachel, to tell him a white lie every night so that he can sleep without having nightmares: “Chef Sébastien called; the M.O.F. has been cancelled.”

This is not a contest like Top Chef or Chopped where the competitors win once, get their prize and go home. It is more of a test than a competition; more than one person can earn the title. As Chef Jacquy describes it, “It’s how you work every day. If you try to do better than the day before at work this is how you elevate your craft, and this is what makes you ready for such a competition.”

Once they’ve earned the title, the chefs don’t rest on their laurels. In fact, they work harder than they did before, proving every day that they deserve to be called an M.O.F. More importantly, they pass on the passion for the pursuit of excellence to those who surround them, whether in a restaurant, a bakery or a school.

With every broken sugar swirl and rejected entremet, the tension in the contestants becomes a bit stressful to watch. I caught myself remembering my sugar sculpture class with Chef Jacquy when I was his student. I saw a classmate cry over bursting ten sugar apples in a row, I thought. Here, the stakes are much higher and it’s hard to fathom the anxiety he must be feeling.

Thank goodness for comic relief. Chef Jacquy, as one review put it, is “quietly intense,” and rather than letting the pressure get to him, he keeps his easy sense of humor throughout. Most of the laughs, in fact, came from that very intensity. There is one agonizingly long shot when Chef Sébastien and Chef Pierre Zimmerman taste some of Chef Jacquy’s pâte a choux. They thoughtfully chew and chew and chew, analyzing how it can be made better. Is it possible to take sweets so seriously? If there was ever any question, the film shows us how some people live and breathe pastry every single day.

When the actual competition days arrive, everybody in the theater leaned forward in their seats. As the chefs run the race and the judges painstakingly dissect each miniscule aspect of their work, the frenetic music that accompanies them plays like a candy-coated Alfred Hitchcock theme song, intensifying the growing suspense. On the last day, disaster strikes and a collective intake of breath shoots through the spectators, like one you might hear in a thriller.

By now, the audience has learned what these chefs have gone through to get to this point. As Chris Hegedus said about this and her other films, “We followed people at the top of their game, pursuing their dream.” The calamity—an episode that could have been tragic—turns into one of the most genuinely heartening moments I have ever seen in a film. Many competition shows have highlighted sabotage to get better ratings; how refreshing, then, to see the value of a little compassion between chefs.

The end credits were met with unreserved applause and the enlightened audience had the chance to ask questions of the filmmakers along with Chefs Jacquy and Jacques. We all strolled around the corner to one of Chef Jacques’s chocolate shops to celebrate the premiere and toast to its success. Surrounded by candies and a beautiful sculpture complete with a chocolate film reel, I was able to discuss the film with the other guests. Chef Jacquy’s passion, creativity, and dedication—qualities he lives every day—had clearly moved this audience of connoisseurs.