Right in the middle of this documentary, which is purportedly meant to be about the unifying strength of food in the context of a museum event, there is an unexpected, mostly unwelcome, and entirely extraneous bit of dramatic conflict that comes out of left field. Ukrainian architectural pastry chef Dinara Kasko, one of several subjects in director Laura Gabbert’s Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles, is coming down to the wire on her contribution to a unique presentation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Another chef – a man, it should be stated – decides to interject with his idea for a fatty ingredient that will allow the dessert to stay cohesively solid. The interaction between this chef and Kasko is out of character from the rest of the documentary.

For one, the idea doesn’t pan out, forcing Kasko to start over on the preparation process. The man never apologizes, and one can read on every inch of Kasko’s face that she wanted an apology in that moment. For another, it’s an exchange that is, in every way, a throwaway moment for Gabbert, who neither acknowledges the clear tension between any given pairing of subjects here nor has any apparent interest in even exploring the idea of interpersonal tensions existing in this closed universe. Indeed, the film’s actual subject is world-renowned chef Yotam Ottolenghi and his (to him, surprising) request from the Met: to recreate the art exhibit Visitors to Versailles using desserts. To achieve it, he hires out the services of five other chefs, including Kasko, to offer contributions to the project.

Until the bizarre mood shift, the documentary is pretty straightforward – to a fault, in fact. We get our brief introduction to Ottolenghi, for whom the barest and slightest biographical points (his sexuality and upbringing, the inspiration that led to his career) are left for near the end of the film, and then it’s off to the races with his hiring of the other chefs. There are three whose work is actually given some detailed screen time – Kasko and her architectural pastries, Janice Wong and her literal works of edible art (which by themselves are worthy of an entire documentary) and Sam Bompas and his fine English jellies – and two who don’t have the privilege – pastry chefs Dominique Ansel and Ghaya Oliveira.

Throughout the film, Gabbert’s access is obviously impressive, but the filmmaker does almost nothing with it, providing only a few scenes of literal tourism in which Ottolenghi accompanies an official with the Met through the hallways of artwork on display. His interactions with the other chefs – and, indeed, their interactions with each other, some of which are captured live and very awkwardly by Gabbert’s camera – suggest a lot of self-important people puffing themselves up for other self-important people. This is all, though, that is suggested by those interactions. We never get a sense of why, for instance, Wong and Bompas seem to be talking with faux politeness through gritted teeth. This makes everything a surprisingly bleak portrait in its quotidian details.

There is also little rhyme or reason to the construction of the material being shown here, which is a lot of busy commotion leading up to the bare minimum of the actual event being held (for which we receive no surrounding cultural context), a sudden reversal of the film’s attitude toward the early decades of Versailles and a cut to credits in the middle of a thought. Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles leaves a lot to be desired in terms of its craft, its approach and its depth of exploration. At just more than an hour, perhaps that’s to be expected. What is less expected, though, is how the movie, almost accidentally, captures what should be a joyous occasion with the stuff that usually remains behind the scenes: frustrated, alienating people who can barely stand each other.

There is little rhyme or reason to the construction of the material being shown here.
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