Fans of The Great British Baking Show, rejoice! Laura Gabbert’s documentary Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles resembles an extended episode of the popular series, albeit with the world’s top pastry chefs as contestants and The Metropolitan Museum of Art serving as their stage. Which, you know, lowers the stakes a little. Those masters know exactly what they’re doing, after all. And they’re not really competing. Also, there’s no prize or real sense of accomplishment. Come to think of it, scratch my initial sentiment – even ardent fans of The Great British Baking Show are likely to be disappointed by the anticlimactic nature of the film.
When London-based chef Yotam Ottolenghi receives an invitation from The Met to create a cake for an event during their “Visitors to Versailles” exhibit, it’s an offer he can’t refuse. He quickly assembles a team that includes French-American pastry chef Dominique Ansel; British duo Bompas & Parr, who create fine English jellies; Ukrainian baker Dinara Kasko, known for her 3-D-print-baking; Tunisian-born chef Ghaya Oliveira; and Singaporean pastry chef, Janice Wong. The Avengers got nothing on these badasses.
Gabbert follows Ottolenghi to the world-famous museum in New York, where Yotam thoughtfully studies paintings. She then travels with him to Versailles to get a true feel for its history – something with which historian Deborah Krohn helps considerably. The movie kicks into higher gear when the team gets together at The Met and begins the preparations.
“…London-based chef Yotam Ottolenghi receives an invitation from The Met to create a cake for an event…”
Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles is well-shot, and the splendor of Versailles is vividly depicted. The chefs’ creations are inarguably marvelous, though I thought Ansel’s wing-beating swan was a bit too on-the-nose, bordering on vulgar. At the same time, Janice Wong’s edible contraption brought to mind Gaudi rather than someone like Louis Le Vau. But what do I know? I’m just a lowly peasant.
The biggest issue with the documentary is actually voiced by Yotam. When speaking of a painting that depicts fruit, he talks about how it connects us to our past via mere sight. His goal is to transport a person back centuries via taste. Folks are sadly deprived of experiencing that sense when watching Gabbert’s doc, which leaves pretty creations to marvel at. To me, that’s always been a factor in a competitive cooking reality show, but at least you’re rooting for (hopefully) relatable contestants throughout an extended period of time. At 75 minutes, Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles goes down easily but lacks a distinctive flavor.
"…goes down easily, but lacks a distinctive flavor."