Israeli-English chef Yotam Ottolenghi wears many hats: Restaurateur of six delis and dining establishments in London, author of eight cookbooks, and recipient of enough awards to fill a trophy case. Sometimes it feels like the world is replete with celebrity chefs, but even among them, Ottolenghi stands tall.
That’s probably why the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City called on Ottolenghi when they wanted a food component to accompany the opening of their 2018 exhibit, Visitors to Versailles (1682–1789). Ottolenghi’s task, recreate the decadence and extravagance of Versailles in dessert form.
To accomplish this, Ottolenghi surfs Instagram and Pinterest for audacious and artistic chefs: A duo making sensuous jelly molds, a pastry chef who uses a 3-D printer to craft chocolate that looks like modernist architecture, a garden of cakes, cocktails in the form of a whirlpool— all captured by documentarian Laura Gabbert.
The result: Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles is a little bit about Ottolenghi, a little bit about the chefs he hired to pull off the exhibit, a little bit about the drama leading to the climactic night, and a little bit about affluent excess. At 75 minutes, Cakes of Versailles is a brief and brisk doc that doesn’t spend a whole lot of time on any one thing or find an overarching narrative or conflict to latch on to. It’s simply a view backstage while the players put on a show.
There’s a little bit of historical background on the ingredients and the techniques used—a highlight here—and there’s an odd third act focus on the decadence and waste of the event. Gabbert uses shots of discarded half-eaten pastries and images of patrons more excited to take photos of the food than eat them as ways to associate modern-day indulgence in the Big Apple with 18th century France. The sun set on that kingdom abruptly and violently. Whether Gabbert is trying to draw a similar conclusion, or just meditating on the only thing of substance here, will vary by viewer.
Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles (2020)
Directed by Laura Gabbert
Produced by Lauren Deuterman, Jeff Frey
Starring: Yotam Ottolenghi, Dominique Ansel, Sam Bompas, Dinara Kasko, Deborah Krohn, Ghaya Oliveira, Janice Wong
IFC Films, Not rated, Running time 75 minutes, Opens Sept. 25, 2020