Synopsis: Follows chef Yotam on his quest to bring the sumptuous art and decadence of Versailles to life in cake form at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Stars: Yotam Ottolenghi, Dominique Ansel, Ghaya Oliveira, Dinara Kasko, Sam Bompas, Janice Wong
Director: Laura Gabbert
Running Length: 75 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: Flip on any of the numerous cable channels devoted to food and you’re likely to land on a show that celebrates the sweet and the decadent. The cakes tend to take the cake when it comes to what is popular with viewers and programs that feature wars of the cupcake variety and the tales of the bosses of cakes regularly find themselves with massive followings. Who can make the best and most elaborate sponge, butter, or biscuit is always changing and everyone from amateur to pro has thrown their hat into the mix. There is truly something for everyone.
The new documentary Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles literally raises cake-making to high art by following five pastry chefs from around the globe as they bring to life their own interpretation of Versailles through dessert. Curated by famed Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York’s 2018 summer event The Feast of Versailles, director Laura Gabbert follows the chef as he prepares for the event alongside museum administrators and the colorful artists he selects for their diverse talents. The results were surely tasty for those in attendance but less satisfying for those of us at home that can only go so far in the overall experience of the fête.
The inherent problem with Gabbert’s film is best illustrated by a scene halfway through where one chef struggles with a recipe that worked well at home but isn’t coming together so well in The Met’s kitchens. The Met’s head chef tells her that her ingredients lack a fat, a bonding agent, to hold everything together and that’s what’s missing in Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles as well. Though Ottolenghi is the through line that Gabbert constructs her narrative around, he’s not a strong enough central figure to hold the entire film up. To be fair, it appears that aside from the recipe drama and a brief electrical issue that threatened to stymie one of the elaborate displays, there isn’t much in the way of suspense to be mined so it appears Gabbert worked with what she had. I wonder what this could have been if it were a chapter in a longer film that either focused solely on Ottolenghi, the chefs being featured, or as part of a larger look at The Met and its history. This appears to be such a specific piece of a larger puzzle that’s been removed from a bigger idea. While the material has moments of interest, I found myself wanting to know more about Ottolenghi or the various people that worked at The Met more than the singular event being highlighted. That speaks to some disconnect between storytelling and subject.
Even at 75 minutes, this feels like it strains to hit feature length and plays more as a long episode of a show you’d see on the Food Network. The history of Versailles has been covered in greater detail before and reconstructed in its full glory for big budget films in the past so the mini staged conversations between Ottolenghi and historical experts feels a bit like a forced refresher course added for padding. That being said, when Gabbert turns her lens on the food and the art created from the layers of decadence it’s hard not to feel your cheeks start to swell and your taste buds long for a bite. Would that the rest of Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles have been as sumptuously stimulating.