Considering America has been teetering on the brink of collapse, with 200,000 dead from COVID-19, the economy in free-fall, and a presidential election that, for all intents and purposes, will be acting as a portal to another civil war, a documentary about the cultivation of a Versailles-inspired luxury pastry program, to be served to a guest list of NYC’s rarified art elite, could seem a bit…frivolous?
But the opportunity to lose ourselves in the making of extravagant pink and purple confections seems just what we need right now to distract us from this otherwise very grey reality. And, well if one wanted to draw political parallels, the halls of Versailles themselves do contain lessons for today, regarding the iniquitous division of wealth, and the subsequent fall of a once great empire.
And so it is that the delicious new IFC doc Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles turns out to be the perfect bit of escapism, especially for those missing the highbrow delights of New York’s most exalted museums—as the spectacular setting is the city’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
It starts with renowned chef/restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi recalling how he received a completely unexpected message.
“I get this email from The Met, saying, ‘We’d love you to do an event for us.’ At first I looked…’Why am I getting an email from The Met?”
Curiously, the Israeli Ottolenghi currently resides in London and Vienna, the latter being perhaps the only city that can match Versailles in terms of baroque extravagance, courtesy of those with access to the royal coffers at that time. The Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg dynasty, you recall, also experienced a spectacular fall, the one which ignited WWI.
But the event in question was to be a rarefied party celebrating The Met’s Visitors to Versailles, 1682 – 1789 (April 16 – Jul 29, 2018), which explored the breathtaking realities of running the day to day hospitality matters at the grandest personal home in the history of mankind. Curator Danielle Kisluk-Grosheide is seen describing the exhibition thusly: “It is really inspired by the account of the many and diverse travelers who went to Versailles between 1682 and 1789, when Louis XVI was forced to return back to Paris.”
Why Ottolenghi was chosen for the gig is explained straight away, when at his test kitchen in London he sets up the journey by explaining, “There is just so much history in everything we cook…a recipe’s not that good if it doesn’t have a story.”
A montage of images of uptown NYC follows, and they’re captivating in a way that strangely makes an accidental statement at this time of pandemic lockdown, and the city’s uncertain future. As the idea of “downtown” cool had already become a moribund one, and COVID-19 came along and veritably finished it off, the visuals here seem to suggest, this…this is the New York that will survive. (For better of for worse.)
Ottolenghi then also reminds us of the spectacularness of New York’s cultural institutions, which we have had to do without for so many months now, when he observes, “It feels like The Met is a city.” If you’ve ever been, you know what he means.
Limor Tomer, General Manager, Met Live Arts Department, drives the point home: “The Metropolitan Museum of Art…two million square feet, over seven million visitors a year, over 1.5 million objects…it’s a big place, it’s daunting. It’s extraordinary, 5000 years of human achievement, right here in this building. Not just objects, but ideas.”
That also sets up just what Ottolenghi and his fellow pastry maestros will be up against. Cut to him wandering the imposing courtyards of Versailles, explaining how chefs from all over the world are united under a language and training that has ultimately been influenced by French cooking—and they will be charged with living up to that history.
He then starts recruiting them from around the world: Ukranian wunderkind Dinara Kasko, whose architectural background finds her devising 3D molds on her computer for her futuristic confection creations; London’s insanely hip Bompas & Parr, who make technology driven conceptual art out of English jellies; Ghaya Oliveira, exec pastry chef of Daniel, known for her reinvention of French pastry classics; Singapore’s Janice Wong, who fashions edible art, mainly with chocolate…sort of couture comestibles.
Dominique Ansel is introduced as the genuine “celeb” factor of the group, the modern but nostalgic French chef who gained global fame by inventing the cronut at this Soho bakery.
The mission: Ottolenghi explains, “When we were thinking about Versailles, we were thinking, how do we give people an embodied way to understand what Versailles was?”
We are then taken on a journey from conception, through the stresses of process, as all six of these masters of the fine art of pastry struggle to bring their lavish inventions to light by the day of the event. We are reminded that for all of the haughtiness of the finished product, working in a kitchen is, well, hard…and working with food is unpredictable.
“If you take a chicken,” Ottolenghi ponders, “and put it in the oven and cook it, you get a chicken. But if you take all the ingredients that go inside a cake, you get this incredible transformation. And I think this is why pastry chefs have always been in the forefront of the scientific endeavor in cooking. Because they are the ones that take ingredients and really transform them.”
Despite the music accompanying the “day of” montage feeling strangely like it could be soundtracking a Tim Burton movie, watching the massive confections be rolled out on trolleys is distinctly dramatic. And, well, from that point on, the doc is an absolute visual feast, one that’s best left to the eyes, rather than attempting any possible description here.
Yes, as mentioned, this is pure escapism. But there’s always something riveting about the process of great geniuses—and make no mistake, Ottolenghi’s team are geniuses in their field. And seeing how these wild creatives, also wildly divergent, bring their entire history of influence, from a grandmother’s perfume during childhood, to time spent being a ballerina, to the creation of a magnificent pastry, is a truly glorious thing.
Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles is now available for purchase or rental at Vudu, Apple iTunes, Google Play Movies, the Microsoft Store, and YouTube online.