Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles
This culinary documentary serves up glossy, gleaming eye candy for those with a sweet tooth, but it never feels like a full meal.
December 24, 2020
Marie Antoinette didn't actually say "let them eat cake", no matter how often the statement is misattributed to the 18th-century royal before her date with the guillotine. But New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art was surely hoping she would've approved of its hedonistic June 2018 food gala, which tied into the venue's Visitors to Versailles exhibition in the same year — and, in line with the place and period under the grill, put decadence on the menu. Overseeing the spread of desserts fit for a queen: renowned Israeli English chef and restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi. He didn't make the Feast of Versailles' lavish cakes himself; instead, he trawled Instagram to source and select five pâtissiers known for delicious, innovative and aesthetically appealing wares. He found them, too, enlisting Dominique Ansel, the NYC-based French pastry chef who invented the cronut; Sam Bompas and Harry Parr, the London food artists known for their striking jellies and unique food events; architecturally trained Ukrainian Dinara Kasko, who approaches her desserts with the same design principles; Ghaya Oliveira, an award-winner and veteran at the Michelin-starred Restaurant Daniel; and Singapore's Janice Wong, who aims to turn chocolate into edible art.
The exacting theme that approaches art and history through an untraditional lens, the melding of varying creative arenas, the roll call of significant names in their field, the theatricality on display, the iconic setting — if it all sounds a bit like a culinary version of The Met Gala, that was undoubtedly the intention, too. Celebrities didn't attend, paparazzi weren't on hand to snap photos, fundraising wasn't the name of the game and no one broke the internet, but this was no ordinary serving of sugar. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that, as the venue's fashion-focused event did before it, Feast of Versailles has also earned the documentary treatment. Where The First Monday in May chronicled the preparations for 2015's Met Gala, Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles does the same with the quest to recreate the Palace of Versailles' gardens with chocolate and multi-coloured fondant, whip up a tiered mousse cake that resembles the French castle's sculptured detail, and pair them all with swan-topped pastries, wobbling palace-shaped jellies and a cocktail-filled whirlpool fountain.
Viewers of cooking-focused reality television will know what's in store. That may not be the comparison one expects with a doco about a Met event, but it fits. Documentarian Laura Gabbert (City of Gold) deploys the personable Ottolenghi as her guide, and gets him to chat through the task at opportune moments. Her film also spends time first introducing Ansel, Bombas and Parr, Kasko, Oliveira and Wong, then watching them work towards the big gala evenings. Periodically, Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles has Ottolenghi chat with Met staff about logistics as well, and to historical experts. The former reveal their horror at having liquid anywhere near the gallery's exhibits, and the awareness that events with a live component are so much trickier to control than inanimate displays; the latter discusses 18th-century Versailles in general, the culinary excesses of the royal courts, the fact that chocolate was used for drinking long before it was eaten and, only briefly, the fate that befell Versailles' most famous figures in the French Revolution. Combine all of the above ingredients in a 75-minute documentary, and it's as formulaic as it sounds — even if the gala itself, the chefs behind it and their dazzling desserts could never earn that description.
The First Monday in May was helmed by a different director to Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles; however, both films struggle to bring their concepts to life. As a mere record of occasions that happened, they do a fine job of showing what goes into staging these types of extravagant events. They also capture the tension and drama beforehand, and the indulgence and luxury when everything comes to fruition. But it seems that docos about Met galas are fated to take a superficial and straightforward approach, despite striving for more, and attempting to mimic the layers and textures of the venue's exhibitions and festivities. In Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles' case, the NYC institution clearly didn't hold a lavish Versailles-themed feast without intending to get everyone involved and in attendance thinking about the vast disparities between the haves and have nots — aka the whole reason that the "let them eat cake" misquote exists. Alas, Gabbert's film is mostly content to depict rather than interrogate this idea. A few very late shots, including of Trump Tower's garish gold interior, endeavour to stress modern-day parallels between Versailles and today's one-percent, but hardly delve deep.
Accordingly, Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles is glossy, gleaming eye candy for those with a sweet tooth. It never feels like a full meal, though. That may be apt given that it's about dessert, but there's more substance in the tables piled high with cake and confection seen within the movie's frames than in the documentary's examination of its subject — and of the topic driving Feast of Versailles, and therefore sparking the film in the first place. While interesting tidbits pop up frequently, relating to food and history alike, they're akin to an entree. Viewers keep expecting something heartier, only to be left intellectually hungry. The audience is left physically ravenous, of course, because roving over all those spectacular dishes is a sure-fire way to whip up an appetite for a treat. This pleasant, palatable but slight movie obviously can't leave stomachs satisfied either, but it will make mouths water.