Movie Review: Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles

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The modern-day equivalent of turning water into wine, a great chef can walk into a kitchen, survey the ingredients, and turn a bunch of disparate nothings into something divine. But when they're forced to use both new ingredients and technology in foreign lands, even veteran chefs get stuck sometimes, as we learn in Laura Gabbert's eggshell light documentary, “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles.” 

Watching an all-star lineup of international chefs work together to bring the desserts of Versailles to life for an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, we experience a few moments of culinary peril in the seventy-five-minute trifle as batters keep separating or machines don't play well with American outlets. Still, with these masters in the kitchen, perfection, we're assured, is just one scene or flick of the whisk away.

A laudatory survey of the talented minds and creative techniques brought together by Jerusalem born, London based chef and influential cookbook author Yotam Ottolenghi to dazzle American palates, Gabbert's film is missing a true sense of focus. Beginning with Ottolenghi's call to action as he's invited to the Met to head up the launch of their newest exhibit, Ottolenghi casts the net out wide across the many chefs of Instagram to hire innovators from Ukraine to Singapore and beyond with the most specialized of skill sets.

Meeting innovative experts in their field, including “cronut” innovator Dominique Ansel and Dinara Kasko and more, Ottolenghi's crew delights the senses with ornately textured chocolate walls, complex Crayola bright jello molds, 3D architectural cakes, edible sculptures, and other confections sure to make your mouth water. Yet rather than endear us to each wizard one by one (including Ottolenghi), Gabbert serves them all up to us in a rush buffet style, all but ensuring that her film will play best to true foodies with more than just a cursory idea of who one or more of these figures are.

At its most intriguing when it spends time one-on-one with the chefs we're getting to know through their work, including the brilliant Janice Wong who found herself turning away from entrepreneurial endeavors and toward more artistic pursuits after a car crash left her with a completely different personality, I wish Gabbert would've stayed with the human story longer.

The film does layer in some background information about the palace of Versailles, which was the home to the French monarchy from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century and best personified by Marie Antoinette. However, unsure of the documentary's tone, when Gabbert suddenly starts to question the regal era that she and the chefs had been both celebrating and attempting to make modern once again for museum-goers late into "Ottolenghi," it feels like an ill-fitting afterthought.

Although it's perfectly pleasant, and places quite the emphasis on perfection in its richest and most sugary decadent form, there's just not enough holding this film together to make it a must-see. Culling together the freshest of ingredients, no matter how much Gabbert tries to mix it all up into an appealing pastry, in the end there's nothing to keep the batter from separating once more.

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