If you’re one of those people who’ve been using the pandemic to start working on your sourdough bread starter, “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles” might make you feel like something of a slacker. Or maybe it’ll send you to your local bakery for a to-go order. Or maybe you’ll just sit there watching it and drooling.
Whatever reaction it inspires, the IFC documentary from Laura Gabbert that opens in select theaters and on-demand on Sept. 25 will involve your taste buds more than a usual movie. Awash in impossibly elaborate desserts inspired by the French court of Versailles, it shows us a series of pastries or jellies that look too good to eat but too delicious not to. To watch it at home where you have to make do with whatever’s in the fridge, or in a theater where you have to wear a mask and should avoid the snack bar, feels like an exercise in frustration.
But it’s a tasty kind of frustration, albeit one that comes with a pretty obvious dark side. This, after all, is a film that talks about the opulent French court where the royals dined on elaborate dishes designed to show off their power, while the lower classes gawked and scrambled for leftovers – and the setting for its Versailles-inspired event is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, a town not short on its own displays of ostentatious wealth side-by-side with poverty.
Gabbert, whose last film was the Jonathan Gold chronicle “City of Gold,” about the L.A. restaurant critic known for championing cheap joints as much as expensive ones, is aware of the class divide she’s delving into here. And so is her tour guide, the Israeli-born chef and restauranteur Yotam Ottolenghi, who was recruited by the Met to oversee an event that would coincide with “Visitors to Versailles,” a 2008 exhibit devoted to Louis XIV’s court and the many world travelers who stopped there.
The film spends most of its time with Ottolenghi (who is also one of the movie’s executive producers), and hears more of his story than anyone else’s. But he’s the curator here, not the artist, apparently scouring Instagram and coming up with five culinary artists who, he says, “taken their art so seriously that they push the boundaries of technology, flavor and presentation.” They are defined by the term “pastry chef” only in the loosest possible way.
His dream team consists of French-American chef Dominique Ansel, best known for inventing the cronut; the British team of Bompas & Parr, who produce jellies that defy imagination; Dinara Kasko from Ukraine, who creates 3D molds that turn her cakes into architecture; Tunisian-born Ghaya Oliveira, the pastry chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant in New York who reinvents French desserts and works wonders with chocolate; and Janice Wong from Singapore, whose elaborate creations are, in Ottolenghi’s words, “all about edible art.”
In the grand tradition of these kinds of documentaries about big events, Gabbert turns it into a countdown: “Two Days to the Event,” “One Day to the Event,” “The Day of the Event.” And also in the grand tradition, we see the snafus along the way: Dinara’s mousse won’t come together, and the guy who’s supposed to be helping her gives her bad advice; Bompas & Parr want to create a whirlpool in the middle of their table, but the whirlpool-making machine works fine in London but won’t run on the Met’s power …
As they assemble their creations, we learn a little about each of the chefs, though Gabbert would rather spend the brisk 75-minute running time exploring Ottolenghi’s own background or, especially, delving into the world of Versailles. “I really didn’t know much,” Ottolenghi says of his knowledge of the French court. “I knew more or less that Marie Antoinette never said, ‘Let them eat cake.’”
She didn’t, but that phrase became shorthand for her cluelessness about the less fortunate. And along the way to the Met’s fabulous event, the film spends lots of time talking about the class divide in Louis XIV’s time, and how the architecture, the gardens and, yes, the food served to emphasize the power and authority of the royals.
The film can’t help but address the class divide in our own time, though for the most part it never really acknowledges how over-the-top and elitist the dessert creations look, or how far beyond normal life they go as they turn patisserie into fantasy – because Ottolenghi and Gabbert are completely enamored with these creations, too. (And so are we.)
But the filmmakers don’t have to get completely explicit to make the point, particularly when much of the final 20 minutes finds Ottolenghi and historian Deborah Krohn discussing the inequities of Versailles, and its fall, at great length.
In a way, this is a change of tone for a movie that has been relatively playful for most of its running time, but it’s also a sign that the film doesn’t want to settle for making your mouth water or your eyes bug out. You can go to “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles” for the delectable excess, but you’ll stick around for the quiet, cautionary notes between bites.