Unexpected thrills in a French kitchen

D.A. Pennebaker has been making good documentaries for so many years now that film buffs have learned to follow the director-cameraman-editor wherever his interests might take him.

Pennebaker’s long list of films includes the classic Bob Dylan documentary, “Don’t Look Back” (1967), as well as the Clinton campaign film “The War Room” (1993) he made with his partner Chris Hegedus.

Away from Pennebaker, Hegedus co-directed the terrific 2001 film, “startup.com,” about a disastrous Internet start-up company in the late 1990s (the movie about the bursting of the first Internet bubble can now be viewed as a nightmarish precursor to “The Social Network” because of the way it examines a business venture that destroys a personal relationship).

The 2010 Pennebaker-Hegedus film, “Kings of Pastry,” is on DVD from First Run Features, and it is an unexpectedly exciting look behind the scenes of a French competition — the Meilleurs Ourvriers de France — held every four years to honor the best pastry chefs in the world.

Winners of the MOF get to wear a blue, red and white ribbon around the necks of their uniforms for the rest of their lives — an honor in their field as important as a gold medal is to an athlete.

We’ve grown so used to trumped-up cooking competitions on TV that it is exciting to be able to go behind the scenes of a historic race that carries real weight in the world of fine dining.

Pennebaker and Hegedus closely follow Chicago chef Jacquy Pfeiffer — co-founder of that city’s prestigious French Pastry School — but they also expand their view to include up-close-and-personal scenes showing a few of the other young French chefs who are competing for the prize.

The MOF is no simple cooking contest in which the flavor and appearance of pastries are judged. The contestants have to prepare a wide variety of treats under severe time limitations and they also have to create huge and delicate display sculptures (below) made out of sugar and chocolate.

Most of the tension in “Kings of Pastry” surrounds the creation of these delicate display pieces, which can collapse or break apart if they are not handled like they are bombs that could go off at any moment.

We meet one chef who tells us of the shame he felt in the previous competition when his sculpture fell to the floor and was broken into bits — making it impossible for him to win the MOF.

Watching the latter part of this film I couldn’t help but think of the classic 1952 French thriller “The Wages of Fear” in which nitroglycerine had to be transported in trucks over rough mountain roads.

When one of the chefs in “Kings of Pastry” endures a near disaster and breaks down in tears, the emotional display does not seem at all overwrought.