“A recipe is not that good if it doesn’t include a story,” the British-based chef Yotam Ottolenghi can be heard saying early in “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles,” knowing a thing or two from putting together a number of bestselling cookbooks. Known in London for stacking the pastries in the windows of his bakeries as tall as they’d be in souks in Jerusalem where he was born, Ottolenghi might find at first an invitation from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to participate in their Summer 2018 “Visitors to Versailles” exhibit a bit curious, but the live events department at the New York institution knows what they’re doing in asking the chef to provide culinary accompaniment for one afternoon, an event comprised of the kinds of decadent desserts that would’ve been served up to Marie Antoinette and her royal court.
While the Met sees Ottolenghi’s arrival as a way to make the past come alive, director Laura Gabbert uses the opportunity to make a strong case for food becoming one of the most vital and predominant art forms of the 21st century, with the presentation of the chef’s work in an actual museum seemingly the culmination of what millions of Instagram posts could tell you for some time as a form of personal expression. After previously taking on the impossible task of capturing the cultural identity of Los Angeles through its greatest food critic, the late Jonathan Gold in “City of Gold,” the filmmaker only slightly engages with the race-against-the-clock structure you’d expect from a film about putting together a major event in roughly 48 hours after the chefs hit the ground, instead racing around the globe as it profiles the chefs that Ottolenghi enlists to create eye popping vittles for the exhibit.
Although he doesn’t need to look far from the Met to find French cronut inventor Dominique Ansel and Tunisian chocolate wizard Ghaya Oliveira, who’s the executive pastry chef for Daniel Boulud, Ottolenghi scrolls through his social media feeds to find the wildly inventive British jellymakers Bompas and Parr, the Ukranian baker Dinara Kasko, who studied architecture before applying those skills to cake design, and Janice Wong, a Singaporean dessert bar impresario whose sugary confections lead Ottolenghi to exclaim, “Wow, who does these things?” Naturally, all of their recipes come with a story and even though jokes are made about how the Met, with its maze-like underground and countless attendants, bears a strong resemblance to Versailles, Gabbert finds there are serious comparisons to be made, from the ability of a major cultural center to bring together people with a great variety of experience and have their influences blend together to ultimately what such excess in current cuisine says about our contemporary state of affairs.
If “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles” threatens to become food porn as it dazzles with jello molds of Prosecco, champagne and elderberries and gold Sun King masks made entirely out of chocolate, it is the rare film to confront its potential for obscenity, with Ottolenghi openly questioning accessibility and the exclusivity of events such as the Versailles gala when only a rarefied few can afford to attend. But Gabbert ably balances this against the satisfaction that food can bring as unifying force and creative outlet, particularly when many of the chefs emerged from humble backgrounds and found cooking to be the best way to fulfill their potential after careers in other fields. Thoroughly exploring where each dessert comes from historically and emotionally for the chefs, the film allows one to savor every detail and as much as a welcome diversion as “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles” can be with all its bites that transport to other places, it beautifully conveys how what we eat can show us who we are.