‘Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles’ Is A Sweet Treat

by Jonah Desneux on September 25, 2020

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Up]

In theaters and on VOD September 25.

Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles is a delightful documentary full of mouth-watering visuals that puts the Food Network to shame. From the start, the film places you in a sugar trance leaving you to shout “Let me eat cake” as you succumb to tantalizing shots of sweets made by the world’s greatest pastry chefs. Equal parts educational and a celebratory of human achievement, Ottolenghi is a scrumptious viewing experience of the artistic process. The film’s stakes are never raised too high and the drama is minimal, but satisfaction is found in the simple pleasure of watching culinary artists create their art.

In its short runtime of seventy-five minutes, Ottolenghi and the Cake of Versailles documents the process of world-renowned chefs coming together for a Versailles delicacy exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Famous Chef Yotam Ottolenghi serves as the film’s guide as he assembles the team of culinary artists from around the world, educates the audience on the history of Versailles and everyday ingredients such as chocolate and sugar. The film jumps between Chefs amid their creative process, as they have two days to create their unique piece for the exhibit.

Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles is a charming film that works it’s magic by allowing audiences to be absorbed into a new world. Director Laura Gabbert takes audiences behind the scenes of the world of culinary art and into the brains of some of the most renowned chefs that inhabit it. Each Chef featured in the film deserves respect and it’s a pleasure giving it to them as they are framed to mimic the wonder of Versailles. This isn’t Hell’s Kitchen with one chef screaming at another while the clock is ticking down. The countdown time is frequently mentioned but never used as a technique to induce stress. The film assures the audience that they are witnessing the best of the best and that all will easily come together once it’s time to start the show. Removing this cliché of time based tension allows for audiences to be kept mesmerized by the process itself.

The film’s editing and pacing are brilliantly assembled to resemble the process of baking a cake. At the beginning, we meet our Chef, Ottolenghi, and he introduces us to the different ingredients he will be using. These ingredients are the other chefs and through a wonderful “assemble the team” montage, Ottolenghi lets the viewer know the importance of each ingredient and the excitement of them all coming together. After this introduction, the ingredients are mixed, each serving their purpose and the film’s pacing slowly rises just like the cakes they are creating themselves. Once perfection is achieved, it is time to eat the cake at The Met’s Versailles event. During the exhibit, there are shots of cakes being cut open and consumed. The results are as satisfying as a first bite and Gabbert lets the audience have their cake and eat it too.

Chef Ottolenghi is a remarkable narrator for the film as he effortlessly leads the project as his passion transcends the screen. Documentaries are at their best when the viewer sees and experiences authentic emotions from the film’s subjects. Normally, this is used to evoke empathy and sadness but Gabbert turns this to a positive by simply letting Ottolenghi share his love of pastries. It’s difficult to not be hooked onto every word Ottolenghi shares about himself, an ingredient we take for granted, and the wonder that was Versailles. Ottolenghi’s dialogue is illuminating and the film would have not had the same soothing effect with any other narration.

For all that it’s celebrated, the film should have gone further with a more complicated view of Versailles. While praising all of Versailles splendors, achievements, and community, the film does not focus enough on the elitism and contrast to the rest of a starving French at the time. This discourse is saved for the very end of the film and not given much time to allow for reflection. Ottolenghi comments on the mixed feelings he has on Versailles but the film could have pushed much further for many reasons.

One reason is that to celebrate the excess it’s important to also understand and study the neglect that might be there, especially in our current times. The other reason and a fault to the film itself are learning about the cause of the have and have-nots is interesting. The five or so minutes covering the lens we view Versailles was engaging and could have been spread throughout the film more and gone deeper. What was given instead, does the film a disservice and feels as if an important point was swept under the rug.

Jonah Desneux

Jonah Desneux is a recent graduate from the University of Missouri with a BA in Film Studies. It’s baffling that someone who just spent four years writing film paper after film paper would immediately want to write some more, but hey, he must love it! Along with writing about film Jonah enjoys writing and performing sketch comedy in Columbia and Kansas City.

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