Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles: Fritter Away, by David Bax
To a certain bourgeois segment of the population, Yotam Ottolenghi has already reached the status of celebrity chef. I count myself among them; a copy of his beautifully presented 2010 vegetarian cookbook Plenty sits just a few feet behind me as I write this. But, as the central subject in Laura Gabbert’s documentary Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles, he appears to be making a play for the big leagues. This all feels less like a movie than an audition reel for the Food Network.
As a part of an exhibit about Versailles at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Ottolenghi is tapped to curate pastries that capture the opulence and decadence of the great palace. He recruits a group of well-known pâtissiers–including Dominique Ansel, the inventor of the cronut–each of whom bring their own specialization to the party. It’s the Ocean’s Eleven of pastry chefs.
In an attempt to make Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles more than just endless shots of macarons and profiteroles–not that anyone was complaining–Gabbert positions the exhibit’s opening as a kind of ticking clock and then drums up the tension leading to it. Some of this is clearly exaggerated, like when a crucial specialty appliance brought from overseas won’t work and the solution is essentially just plugging it into a different outlet. But other bits, like history’s most hilariously passive aggressive disagreement about cocoa butter, are a delight.
Ottolenghi may be at its most engaging, though, when it depicts pastry not as a combination of art and food but as a meeting of art and technology. One of the chefs studied as an architect and brings meticulous, virtuosic engineering to her cakes. That’s a long evolution from medieval pastry dough which was learn was, essentially, a flavorless precursor to Tupperware. It’s only from this angle–pastry as an applied science–that Gabbert has something novel to say about what we’re looking at.
On the other hand, the movie elicits cringes when it strains for relevance. A sweaty attempt to describe life in the court of Versailles as an early form of social media has an embarrassing “Shakespeare was the first rapper” type of vibe.
There actually are parallels to be drawn between Versailles and the present day but Gabbert runs so far in the other direction from them as to appear tone deaf. In a time of unprecedented income inequality, Ottolenghi makes the baffling choice to present Versailles as a great coming together of cultures and not a viper’s nest of the idle rich and powerful who schemed and plotted against one another miles out of sight of the suffering poor, never giving the masses a thought until the day they came to collect heads. But the gardens are nice.