A Mouth-watering Movie

The revered Israeli-born chef, restaurateur, and food writer Yotam Ottolenghi has become one of the most influential cookbook authors in the world not just on the strength of his recipes, but also because he thinks of them as a link to the past — as an experiential way to reanimate faded eras through taste, smell, and any other sensations that books, films, and museums can only describe.

Ottolenghi is a connoisseur of context who always insists on highlighting the history in everything we cook, and so when New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art decided to host an event in the summer of 2018 that would allow its patrons to explore the privilege and power dynamics of Versailles with their mouths, Ottolenghi was a natural pick to lead the operation.

Directed by City of Gold filmmaker Laura Gabbert, Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles offers a mouth-watering, if half-baked, look behind the scenes at how the event came together. Sweeter than it is satisfying, this 75-minute documentary eschews any real sense of conflict in favour of positioning itself as a ruminative slice of edutainment – and really, what more are we asking for at the end of this nightmare of a year?

The film evolves into an exploration of the symbiotic relationship between money and art, and questions what the visibility of that conspicuous consumption could portend. It does, however, attempt to cram too many narratives and subjects into too short of a running time, which sees it coming across as both overstuffed and oddly undernourished.

It’s not until the cake plates are cleared that Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles directly addresses the elephant in the room, which is where Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI’s tale ends: at the guillotine. Tremendous inequality led the French to revolt against their 1% who hoarded wealth while the people lacked flour for bread. Manhattan’s shiny skyscrapers loom ominously over this discussion.

Deep into an economic crisis, this notion has a greater impact than Gabbert or the participants could have known at the time. Of course, if your 2020 brain can’t handle the more nuanced aspects of the film then your eyes can simply delight at the aesthetic beauty while your taste-buds tingle.

You will go to Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles for the delectable excess, you’ll stick around for the quiet, cautionary notes between bites.