Although the Tribeca Film Festival has been indefinitely postponed, several films that were scheduled to screen at the event have been made available to critics for screening.
Documentary films that set out to capture a specific event are often hostage to the whims of fate. Sometimes, something unexpected happens that moves the story that the documentarian is trying to capture to a new, exciting direction. Other times, the event can unfold rather smoothly, with no drama or conflict that would make for an engaging story. Unfortunately, director Laura Gabart’s latest, Ottolenghi And The Cakes Of Versailles, falls into the latter category.
In the summer of 2018, chef and food writer Yotam Ottolenghi was approached by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to assemble a team of pastry chefs for an exhibition that would center on the wealth and culinary decadence of the court of French King Louis XVI. Ottolenghi reaches out and assembles the cream de la cream puff of pastry world.
Fortunately for the event, but perhaps unfortunately for the director Gabart, the evening comes off without a major hitch in the works. Great event planning, but potentially low stakes drama for documentary filmmaking. Sure, there is a brief moment where one person’s chocolate fountain won’t work but that gets resolved fairly quickly. The biggest interpersonal squabble between the chefs happens when Ukrainian architect-turned-pastry chef Dinara Kasko is told that a process she id doing is wrong, although she continues to do things her way as soon as the critic’s back is turned. To her credit, Gabard lets these interactions, as well as the other unforseen obstacles that pop up in the various chefs’ paths, play out naturally where the temptation could have been to milk them for all of their dramatic worth.
Where Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles generates interest is in the backstage view of the various chefs assembling their creations. If you are interested in the artistic process, each chef offers their own approach to their creations. Kasko uses her architectural background to make digital 3D models of each of her creations. Singapore-based Janice Wong treats her creations as if they were fine art. Even Dominique Ansel, perhaps best known as the inventor of the cronut, has a process that reveals a startlingly creative result.
Ottolenghi himself proves to be an engaging guide through the event and the world that these pastry chefs exist in. He is deeply knowledgeable and has an easy-going charm and nerdy but never nebbishy enthusiasm that generally tends to make up for any large kitchen drama the film ultimately lacks. At one point Ottolenghi states that a good pastry needs a story. By that standard, though, this movie is nothing but empty calories.