Kings of Pastry

July 20, 2010

Been thinking about this film a lot, since seeing it yesterday. It’s an intimate view into a strange, macho world that seems so foreign, so old fashioned. Watching those men struggle to win the Meilleur Ouvrier de France pastry title is like watching Olympic athletes training; they give it their all, for years, and then it comes down to three short days.

It’s a man’s world and in the first few moments of the film I couldn’t help remembering a meeting I had, years ago, with the women chefs of France. They were setting up their own organization, in opposition to the MOF. Because they are, of course, left out of the competition. It’s only for the ouvriers, not the ouvrieres; there’s even a point in the film where the chief judge tells one of the contestants to “man up” at a difficult moment.

But once I got over my feminist outrage – after all, in this country pastry has become very female-dominated – I started thinking about the competition itself. I didn’t want to eat a single one of those confections; not one of them struck me as delicious. They were so worked on, so complicated, so technique-driven. Every one of those pastries had been touched a thousand times. And every one of them had been constructed for the eye as much as the mouth. I’d much prefer to eat a piece of pie.

And I won’t even begin to get into how truly ugly most of those laborious pulled sugar constructions were, with their strange shapes, their atrocious flowers, their little birds and giant butterflies.

But mostly this wonderful film explains – although that is clearly not its intention – why there is a new food movement in France, a reaction against this antique tradition of technique. The young chefs have shaken off this world, along with everything it represents. Watching this film about the MOF is like watching a ghost go floating out of the room. I’m not sorry to see it go.

In the beginning of the movie President Sarkozy gives a speech in which he makes a populist case for the MOF as the triumph of the anti-intellectual. The work of the hand, he says, is as important as the work of the mind. And that, of course, is precisely the point; the new breed of chef refuses to accept that they are simply using their hands. The best modern food is not being created by people who are working to win the MOR, and the most interesting chefs aren’t creating old-fashioned set pieces. They want to appeal to your mind as much as your mouth. They want you to think about what you are eating.

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3 Comments

  • RWordplay says:

    Interesting opposition: creating with the hand to excite the eye versus creating with the hand to excite the mind. I can’t say which practice results in a more pleasing culinary experience. I will say there’s still great pleasure to be found in hand work that follows traditional techniques.
    I’d doubt Ms. Reichl lives in a house filled with objects made of extruded plastics, or that she prefers synthetic, conceptual clothing to woven sweaters made chiefly of natural materials, just because these new objects ask her to confront her assumptions and bias regarding the home and fashion. However, I suppose the chef feels, he she must follow the artist before him/her in deconstructing his/her craft, its practices and materials, but the result may simply be a different kind of noise. Just as so much thoughtful art is merely visual noise.
    All said and done, I will take her to task for her assertion: “[Most modern chefs] want you to think about what you’re eating.” I suspect this is true although the thoughts most people seem to have arrived second hand, through the mouths and reviews of critics and enthusiasts such as Reichl, who teach them to savor the new, often for the sake of their being new (how else can a chef make his/her reputation/fortune and, ultimately franchise, or the TIMES fill out their Wednesday food section). Me? More often than not, I prefer simple, traditional, careful and even respectful work to most current “Chef’s vanity.”

  • Amy Golino says:

    Dear Ruth,
    I love your commentary. I love your books, I love your magazines, I love your work. I miss Gourmet. I had the opportunity to attend one symposium, and it was one of the highlights of my life. You talked to me, Anthony Bourdain (I could only mutter, “I’m a Crip AND a Blood!”) I went to Craft, I had the time of my life. Some chef from Martha’s Vineyard hit on me, it was great! I brought all my cherished books so all my heros could sign them, not realizing that it was a book Buying and Signing session.
    Regardless, I have been such a fan, mostly of your books, but also of the things that you are passionate about.
    I went to one session at the October syposium, with the food writers and most of them just didn’t want to travel anymore. Perhaps their lifestyle had changed through the years. I was confused at their disdain since I thought they had the best job in the whole world. My children have grown and I would love nothing better than to travel the globe, or city or web in search of culinary delights, inspirational meals and special techniques, ingredients and teachings to simply and enhance life. I travel New England extensively and know so many wonderful places that I would love to share with your audience.
    Now, a few years later, newspapers have closed down, fantastic magazines are gone. Cooks Illustrated is in my backyard, and his mag is chock full of great tips, but his monologes are so tedious and narcisscistic, it turns me off. Yankee is getting bigger, so it baffles my mind that you are no longer at Gourmet, clearly one of the biggest. You are the BEST. You have so much talent in inspiring food and cooking, and absolutely no it from all of your work. Epicurious is so huge, but you offer so much. Call me (or email)! I would love to help. The world needs more Ruth… I am thinking an internet magazine…
    Amy
    207-925-2010
    amygolino@aol.com

  • I have put this film on my Netflix queue. I hadn’t heard of it, but look forward to watching it, and comparing my reaction to yours.
    Thanks again!
    You never fail to make me THINK.

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