Laura Gabbert has a knack for pairing gastronomy and film — as in her 2016 documentary, City of Gold, which profiles Jonathan Gold, the first food critic to win a Pulitzer Prize. Gabbert’s latest, Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles, follows renowned Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi, who, in 2018, was approached by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to create desserts for an event held in homage to the notoriously decadent palace. Ottolenghi’s hand-picked team of confectioners includes Ukrainian baker Dinara Kasko, who applies an architectural sensibility to her dazzlingly modern cakes, and Janice Wong, a Singaporean who composes large-scale centerpieces akin to edible murals. To provide context for the event held at the Met, Gabbert includes interviews with museum curators and food historians that explore the cultural and social mores of 18th century France through the multifaceted lens of food. We learn about early baking technology, such as the practice of creaming sugar and butter to produce an ersatz form of refined sugar, or using pastry crust to preserve food (since the court predated plastic and other single-use materials). And as Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles progresses, it’s clear that Versailles itself, which was never again used as a royal palace after the beheadings of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI in 1793, can symbolize almost anything to anyone; it’s occupied the public imagination for so long that it is as much an idea of a place as a place itself.
Unfortunately, reckoning with this duality is where this film falters. In assessing Versailles’s function as a political powerhouse for the monarchy and aristocracy — as a social hub for citizens of all classes and backgrounds, a cultural crossroads for foreign visitors and ambassadors, and a testing ground for the latest culinary innovations — Gabbert merely skims the surface of her ideas. Likewise, the footage of chefs preparing their centerpieces is only nominally interesting; we don’t actually see British duo Sam Bompas and Harry Parr create their signature jellies, but do focus on a staff member as she and a Met electrician fix some gadget. And knowing what we do about the downfall of the French monarchy, the connection between their ill-fated decadence and the Met Museum’s own opulence in producing this lavish, two-day event is almost painfully obvious. Still, at its best, Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles is similar to behind-the-scenes documentaries like The First Monday in May, another Met-themed movie where viewers are granted a sneak peek into the creative process of people who elevate their craft into artistic mastery. Beyond that, it’s a diverting but ultimately unsatisfying 75 minutes, simultaneously too short and too cluttered to meaningfully explore all the fascinating implications it presents.
Published as part of Before We Vanish | September 2020.