Chef Jacquy Pfeiffer, left, and chef Sebastien Canonne scrutinize one of Pfeiffer's test cakes as he prepares for the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France competition. ((Chris Hegedus/Pennebaker Hegedus Films))

Chicago pastry chef Jacquy Pfeiffer's quixotic quest to survive the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France competition is about more than becoming the crème de la crème of pastry chefs.

As the documentary Kings of Pastry shows, it's a high stakes drama that sees 16 chefs labour over a three-day period to fill a buffet table with decadent confections.

Husband-and-wife team D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus captured the competition for the first time on film in the documentary, which is screening at Hot Docs in Toronto. 

"They take seriously the idea of craft in food being a worthy object of serious life," said Pennebaker, a documentary maker known for classic music films such as Don't Look Back featuring Bob Dylan and Monterey Pop.

Hegedus, who collaborated with Pennebaker on the seminal political film about the Bill Clinton presidential campaign, The War Room, was the woman behind the camera at the French competition.

"They were very wary of us. I don't think anyone had been allowed to even watch the competition, much less film it," Pennebaker said in an interview with CBC's Q cultural affairs show.

"They drew a square on the floor and said stand there and don't move out of it so she wouldn't be in anybody's way."

Elaborate sugar sculptures

Part of the drama comes from the creation of elaborate sugar sculptures up to 1.5 metres high that can collapse if they are mishandled in any way.

"Jacquy had actually taken glass-blowing to learn some of the techniques that he uses," Hegedus said.

Pfeiffer, who is co-founder of Chicago's French Pastry School, travelled to France to see if he could earn the coveted M.O.F. designation. He was accompanied by coach Sebastien Canonne, who earned the honour several years ago.

Throughout the competition, M.O.F.-designated chefs watched Pfeiffer and each of the other contestants to ensure they didn't use any unauthorized ingredients or techniques. 

"The atmosphere in the competition is such that you can hear a pin drop. It's quite bizarre," Hegedus said.

The filmmakers followed three of the 16 contestants closely, but had no way of knowing until the end of the competition whether they would earn the M.O.F. honours, she said.

'Tension is incredible'

"The tension is incredible for these chefs, so by the time they get to the third day so many things have gone wrong. Really the enemy of sugar is humidity and it can't be controlled in the kitchen. Things don't work out, they're behind schedule," she added.

Hegedus and Pennebaker are co-directors of Kings of Pastry and worked closely throughout the filming process.

Hegedus said part of the "puzzle of the filmmaking process" is how to let viewers know quickly what the film is going to be about.

They opted to begin with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who presents the coveted honours at the end the contest, talking about how manual skill doesn't fall from the sky and how excellence is earned.

"We wanted to set our film apart from TV reality shows. This is not a lightweight competition for reality TV chefs, this is a 100-year-old competition that tries to recognize it as being equal of intellectual pursuits," Hegedus said.

"It's a quest for excellence. Not the best that you can do but the best that can be done."

Kings of Pastry screens Friday at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto.