If there is a moment on television this week that sums up the human condition in all its tragedy, absurdity and nobility, it is this:
Two men, strangers united by a common cause, find themselves standing beside each other, and share a fleeting moment of communication. This pair have not spoken much, because the trial in which they labour is too intense, and each man must find his own way through. Some of their comrades have been caught in this struggle for 16 years. All are exhausted, some shattered; shells of the men they were before. The end is in sight, but while for a few it could mean triumph, ecstasy and release, for many more it will simply mean The End. The air is thick with tension.
In a brief lull, sagging with fatigue, these two exchange a look. Words are not needed, but still one speaks. Eight serious words. Words that say it all. Words to which the other knows there need be no response, because no response could ever be adequate:
“I made a mistake with my cookie cutter.”
He made a mistake with his cookie cutter. Granted, there’s a chance this might not seem like much when you see it written here. But if you watch Kings Of Pastry, you will find that these words carry a weight such as you could never have imagined. There may be those who would assume a documentary about a cake-making competition– which is basically what it is – would be a trifle. But, while handled with the lightest of touches, this is heavy. The going gets so tough, you have to remind yourself to breathe. It is not a film for cream puffs. Although there are cream puffs in it.
Kings Of Pastry is the highlight of a mysterious food season spread across BBC Four this week. Few would argue we are in pressing need of more TV shows about cooking, but this season seems to be making the case we could do with more of a different kind. Masterchef, Come Dine With Me, Jamie’s Ramsay Hell – all these are fine in their way. But none really get into the quest for art or the mad obsession that can drive chefs and gourmands into the hardcore. This, though, is precisely what’s on offer here: cooking shows that are a little less Michael Winner, a little more Michael Haneke.
The pressure cooker begins to build in Fat Man In A White Hat, a two-part series in which the hyperactive American food writer Bill Buford takes his life in his hands by asking whether French food really deserves to be considered among the finest in the world. In search of an answer, he uproots his family and throws himself into a gastronomical odyssey through France, seeking to understand the essence of the country’s cuisine by working under its most demanding chefs in what he describes, accurately, as “the militaristic, fascist, dictatorial, inflexible, scary as hell but kickass French kitchen.”
By the end of the first episode, five months have passed and Buford, sounding close to hysteria, admits he has reached the point where he is only just beginning to understand how much he doesn’t know.
We venture deeper in The Man Who Ate Everything, a portrait of Alan Davidson, the globetrotting, proudly dotty author of The Oxford Companion To Food, in which – madly, you might think – he set out to catalogue everything humans eat, from aardvark through to zucchini, with spam and various eyes along the way. For the film’s presenter, Andrew Graham-Dixon, this book is no simple food reference, but “a portrait of the whole human race, in all its ingenuity.” By the end of his curiously engaging film, you sort of see what he means. Again, though, we are deep in obsession. It took Davidson 20 years to complete his book. He died four years later. No aardvarks shed any tears.
All this, however, is but a light hors d’oeuvre before the emotional feast that is Kings Of Pastry. Shot on handheld video, it’s an unassuming-looking film, but gradually pulls you in, then won’t let you go. There are masters both behind and in front of the camera. The directors are the wife and husband team Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker (the brilliant veteran documentary-maker, probably still best known for his 1966 portrait of Bob Dylan, Don’t Look Back) and they work in an old-fashioned style that should be compulsory studying: no voiceover; no constant repetition; no leading the audience by the nose. Instead, they step back and bring off the difficult illusion that they are simply letting the story tell itself.
Bouncing to a Hot Club Of France-style soundtrack, the story is that of the Meilleur Ouvrier de France competition, a three-day event in which 16 pastry chefs compete to gain access to the ranks of “the MOFs” – the killer elite of French cake makers, allowed to wear the hallowed red, white and blue collar. Hegedus and Pennebaker follow the campaign of three chefs as they train and then get down to the competition itself, held, like the Olympics and The World Cup, only once every four years, because more often would be too draining.
It’s like Masterchef in heaven. Or perhaps hell. To complete the competition, chefs must make a truly incomprehensible amount of cakes and other delicacies, including – in the task that really sorts the men from the MOFs – sugar sculptures. Vast, maniacal, vulgar, almost surreally ornate creations for which sugar is pulled, shaped and blown like glass, but which are infinitely more fragile than the most delicate glassware.
On one level, the film is hilarious. All you see are big men being extremely serious about extremely ridiculous cakes. On another, watching them toil with every fibre of their being to create these intricately meaningless things, it becomes profound. This is no competition in the ordinary sense, because everyone taking part could theoretically win, and everyone wants everyone else to win. A Band Of Brothers. By the end, the previously hardboiled head judge is practically in tears.
It’s those sugar sculptures you have to watch. We soon learn just how easily they can be broken. After a certain point, I was gasping aloud every time someone went near one. Disaster looms constantly, and you wait constantly for it to fall. Eventually, digging my nails into my palms, feeling my heart tighten, I realised I was reacting almost exactly the way I had while watching another film recently. Forget Masterchef. This is the culinary Hurt Locker.
Published in The Sunday Herald, March 2010