In 2018 the Met Museum launched an exhibit called, “Visitors to Versailles,” a movable feast comprised of paintings, portraits, tapestries, and costumes. It was meant to evoke what visitors encountered at the courts of Louis XIV and Louis XVI from 1682-1789. But the “icing on the cake” was the food gala that accompanied it, orchestrated by famed chef and cookbook author, Yotam Ottolenghi. He described it as food, art, and history meeting in one big event. This 75-minute documentary embodies that idea beautifully.
A massive undertaking, one person alone could not possibly create all the confections for the evening, so Ottolenghi hand-picked five pastry chefs to help. Each one of them is unique, and each pushes the boundaries of flavor, presentation, and size. Their only mission is to tell a little bit of the story of Versailles through their cakes. Then we get to be a fly on the wall as they conceive of and fashion their masterpieces.
And it’s not always easy for these perfectionists. There are the broad considerations of how to mesh their personal vision and taste with the overall theme of the show. And there are the small details like, does the plug for the “whirlpool” work, and will it work in another room? One pâtissier grapples with transporting his confectionary swan from his shop in Greenwich Village all the way to the Met and worries what the traffic will be like along the way. Another realizes she may not have the right ingredients in the right measure. For all of them, there is the pressure of the “live theater” of the actual event with its homage to kings, tarts, gardens and topiaries.
What I found especially poignant were the back stories of the chefs. Dominique Angel (of “Cronut” fame) had to go to work at the age of 16, not as a dream or passion but as a way to help support his family. Growing up, Dinara Khosko’s family had so little money, they put sugar on bread as a sweet treat.
But for me, the real revelation in this film is Ottolenghi himself. I know his books (Jerusalem and Plenty) and I follow him on Instagram. But on camera, he lights up every scene he’s in with an easy eloquence. He is also blessed with a sense of wonder and passion, which the audience soon shares. And he is untiring in his quest to get the details right. In one sequence, he travels to the Palace of Versailles to study French history and epicurean tradition in preparation for the evening. In another, we see him poring through old recipe books.
Both the shooting and editing on this film complement his style and dedication. The cinematography – directed by Judy Phu – is intimate, revealing, and simply stunning. The editors (Philip Owens and Faroukh Virani) do a masterful job of juggling three locations, 5 pastry chefs and their stories, museum curators, food historians, and Ottolenghi himself without ever losing the rhythm or theme of the story. And a special nod to the director, Laura Gabbert, without whose vision this documentary would not have come together.
The film brings to life the culture of Versailles, and at the same time puts a mirror up to today’s politics and excesses. In Louis’ time, anyone who was dressed appropriately could enter the palace and his world and look at all the luxuries his title afforded him, while the masses outside went hungry. These days social media does much the same thing by allowing all of us to get an insider’s look at how the rich, famous, and indulgent live. While the filmmaker stressed these parallels, I focused on the dedication and creativity of everyone involved. No matter what your take on the subject, this is a documentary that provides much food for thought.
Photo credit: Judy Phu
Top photo: Ottolenghi at Versailles