OTTOLENGHI AND THE CAKES OF VERSAILLES – Review by Brandy McDonnell
Much like the elaborate confections it chronicles, “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles” boasts numerous layers.
Director Laura Gabbert – who previously carved out her place in food film with “City of Gold,” about the late Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold – mostly manages to balance the various textures and tastes of her short but dense newest documentary.
“Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles” follows Yotam Ottolenghi, the London-based Israeli chef and cookbook author who in 2018 partnered with New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to create a fantastical food event to celebrate an exhibition about the famously lavish French Palace of Versailles.
Ottolenghi scours the World Wide Web to assemble an international dream team of pastry chefs: Dominique Ansel, the NYC-based French-American inventor of the cronut (a hybrid of a croissant and a donut); Ghaya Oliveira, the Tunisia-born James Beard winner at the acclaimed NYC restaurant Daniel; Janice Wong, a Singaporean dessert mogul known for her intricate sweets; Bompas and Parr, the British team famed for devising outrageous jellies (or molded gelatin desserts); and Dinara Kasko, a Ukrainian social media star and former architect renowned for designing stunning cakes by 3-D printing her own silicon molds.
While Ottolenghi tasks these global baking stars with creating confections worthy of the grandeur of Versailles, the philosophical head chef not only heads to France to tour the notoriously opulent home of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette but also sits down with articulate scholar Deborah Krohn for an in-depth discussion of Versailles’ place as a center of 18th-century politics, culture, art and, yes, food.
For the sturdy base of her documentary, Gabbert serves up a high-end variation of the pressure-cooker making-of footage that is the key ingredient to so many successful TV cooking competitions, from “Halloween Wars” to “The Great British Baking Show.” Sure, The Met event isn’t technically a contest, but the chefs all want to present the most jaw-dropping and mouth-watering treats, and Ryan Rumery’s refined score fortunately prevents the film from becoming some garish version of “Chopped.”
But the documentarian also deftly mixes in the dramatic history of Versailles and cannily pairs it with modern-day cultural circumstances, including a tart examination of how the open court of Versailles with showily decadent feasts, art and gardens stirred the starving rabble to revolution compares with the way social media allows today’s 1% to show flaunt their luxurious lifestyles to the rest of the world.