September 17, 2010

INTERVIEW: DA Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, Jacquy Pfeiffer

by Steve Dollar

KINGS OF PASTRY's Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker

There are no tears in pastry, says Jacquy Pfeiffer, the cofounder of Chicago's French Pastry School and star of Kings of Pastry. The new documentary, from the illustrious filmmaking team of DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, follows the affable Frechman as he ventures into his own culinary war room: the fevered competition for the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, which for the 16 chefs who make it into the finals each year might as well be the Nobel Prize in the art and science of patisserie.

Just as there's no omelette without some broken eggs, the contest pushes each chef to the absolute limit. As the cameras follow Pfeiffer through the arduous process—bolstered by his exceedingly patient and devoted girlfriend, Rachel—the story becomes a confectionary cliffhanger, as marvelous and terrifyingly fragile sugar sculptures teeter in peril. Even the world's greatest butter-and-egg men are humbled by the Olympian task of making the perfect creampuff.

I caught up with the husband-and-wife team of Pennebaker and Hegedus at their Upper West Side offices, where Pfeiffer joined them to discuss the joy (and horror) of cooking. All three have been onhand this week for the film's premiere at New York's Film Forum where, yes, dessert was served. WARNING: Minor Spoiler Alert!

[To Hegedus and Pennebaker:] Everyone knows you make historically resonant documentaries about politics and rock'n'roll. What attracted you to the kitchen?

CHRIS HEGEDUS: Jacquy drew us to it.

DA PENNEBAKER: All these films, as I say, are a walk in the dark woods. And these are pleasanter woods than we usually walk in.

CH: Most of your films are about people who are really good at what they do and they're about to take a big risk in their life. This is about the same as The War Room or Dont Look Back. We went out and met Jacquy and he's just such an amazing chef. The work they have to put in, and the time and sacrifice is just enormous, and we had no idea.

When you think about it, chefs are the new rock stars.

DAP: Right, they are.

KINGS OF PASTRY's Jacquy Pfeiffer Jacquy, do you feel like a rock star yourself?

JACQUY PFEIFFER: No, no thank you.

DAP: It seemed to us, it burst on my mind like a kind of star, this is something we should look into because we didn't know anything about it.

CH: I do think that chefs are like the new rock stars in a way. There's such a fascination with food and cooking. That's not exactly why we did it. We stumbled on it through Flora Lazar, a friend of ours who went to Jacquy's school. But once we dropped ourselves into the culinary world...

DAP: ...nobody could get us out.

Jacquy, how did you deal with having cameras around during an already enormously difficult occasion?

JP: We had an agreement. They would be like a fly on the wall. And they kept their promise. If it can help the culinary world to show this kind of competition, let's do it. When you compete like this, you just keep your head down and make whatever you're supposed to make and you don't even see who is next to you. You could have a ferocious lion next to you and it wouldn't be a problem.

I love that line when the president of the MOF says, "This cake is a moral dilemma." That opens up a whole dimension of thinking about food that most people never consider.

DAP: How do you rate taste?

JP: Exactly.

DAP: I'm really amazed that these guys can taste something and tell me what's in it like a good wine person could do. I can never do that.

JP: How do you rate something like this? It's like a painting or piece of music? It's all judged by humans. But you know that before you enter this game. You just have to go for it and do your thing.

DAP: These judges are pretty good chefs themselves. I would hate to have my films judged by prominent filmmakers though. I much more trust kids out of high school.

Kings of Pastry Were the other chefs okay with this?

JP: They were told. This is the kind of organization where we are told what to do. We are told that its 6pm and we have to leave the kitchen because time is up. Leave the kitchen. And anyone who still wants to fiddle around a little bit is escorted outside.

CH: But we were told. We did not get absolute permission to do it right before the competition began, and even then every day we were going to go back and ask the chefs and if we drove them crazy thenthat would be it. So we were also judged each day. But it was very small. We had cameras only. We didn't use boom mics, radio mics. Early on, we realized shooting Jacquy in Chicago that our radio mics threw off his very sensitive scales.

JP: I blame them.

DAP: There wasn't anything to record anyway. It was dead silent, like college boards.

CH: By the end of the third day, they just drew a little square this big for us to stand in and film from. We were very restricted because the idea that we would accidentally knock somebody’s table...

JP: Which happened before. A tripod fell on someone's sculpture and crushed this person's hopes. It’s already a miracle that you are allowed to be there. These kinds of organizations, they don't care. Because they don't have to.

It was heartbreaking when the guy...

JP: Phillipe Rigollot. His sugar sculpture.

CH: The smaller ones are called bijou.

...when it falls apart.

JP: Three years of work and sacrifice are on the floor.

And yet he rallies, which we don't expect. In the end, you didn't win, which of course we're all rooting for.

JP: It is what it is. At the end, they will decide what is what. You accept that or you don't show up.

CH: For me, what's wonderful about the film is it has the twists and turns of real life. And especially because this competition's theme was marriage, and that twists around at the end in its own way.

Will you compete again?

JP: As I say in the movie, I would do it again in a heartbeat. But it's just I did what I did, I achieved what I wanted to achieve. After that, you get the accolade or not, that's a different story. I have so many challenges at the French Pastry School. We started a foundation and expanded tremendously.

Kings of PastryWhat was the darkest moment?

JP: The darkest moment is when you are away from your family and you just work really late at night and it's really dark and you want to go home to your regular bed. And also the closer you get to the competition the more time you wish you had to prepare. Of course, if you had another six months it would still not be enough.

I'm really sorry to conduct this interview on an empty stomach. As I'm sure everyone will be wondering when they see the movie, exactly how were those cream puffs?

CH: Everything was so delicious. This is our favorite here, this cake that Jacquy made. [Points to hemispherical dessert on the film's poster]. It was so exquisite. We really learned how to taste texture and flavors, and sweet and sharp and everything in that one cake. And Jacquy threw it in the garbage. If we hadn't just met you recently we probably would have gone into the garbage and taken it out. When in my life will I have a cake like that? It's not cost-effective. No one would ever serve it anywhere.

JP: We were working on this cake and it was supposed to be a wedding cake. We tried to make it look different, like a dome. But there were so many different textures and layers that we had to work out many different options. Take a pizza, if you change where you put the cheese or where you put the tomato sauce, it completely changes the taste of the pizza. Same thing with the cake. We had like five, six, seven different layers and every time you've got to try this one on top, this one on bottom. If something on top is kind of sweet it might ruin it for everything else. So this was a prototype. Why would I keep it? It's not acceptable.

CH: More perfect than perfect.

JP: Not acceptable.

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Posted by ahillis at September 17, 2010 1:48 PM