Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles

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At first, the premise of this was so confusing to me. Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing I don’t love about all three concepts:

  1. Yotam Ottolenghi. His reverent approach to food is something that has always stood out to me. When this master of middle-eastern food steps into any kitchen, his zen-like demeanour could convince anybody that putting cabbage in your mouth is the most exquisite thing.
  2. Versailles. I’ve had such fond memories of wandering through the gold-laden rooms of one of the most famous palaces in the world. It’s hard to imagine that today (well, maybe not right now with Covid being what it is), you can still occupy the same spaces that Marie Antoinette once did.
  3. And, CAKES. How do you not love cakes?
Dinara Kasko making mousse architecture.

Initially, even Ottolenghi is confused when he gets a call from New York’s Met about doing an exhibition. But as he slowly makes sense of it, you begin to see how his story marries pretty well with what needs to be done. Ottolenghi draws on his roots as a pastry chef and manages to do what he does best: weaving a story between the food and the story that it represents. And while his Jewish background might seem far removed from French patisserie, Ottolenghi makes a point that all chefs to some degree have been influenced by classical French baking techniques.

It should be noted that Ottolenghi never actually does any baking for the exhibition itself. Instead, he turns to the most contemporary form of art galleries -Instagram- and hits up some pretty interesting people in the food world for exhibition entries. And to his credit, the chefs he finally gets are so different from each other that you’re never bored seeing the feats that they’re trying to accomplish. Among these are Dominique Ansel, Ghaya Oliveira, Dinara Kasko, Janice Wong and – my absolute fave entry – Sam Bompas.

Check out Bompas’ outfit. I’ll let you figure out which one he is.

Aside from having a fantastic last name, Sam Bompas is probably most noted for being a jelly rockstar. He’s one half of the famous (as famous as you can get if you specialize in jellies) duo Bompas & Parr. And his excessively wobbly creations had me both chuckling and unavoidably thinking about floppy body parts.

From Bombas & Parr’s “JellyTube”. Tell me this isn’t weirdly fascinating.

Now if you’ve watched any food reality shows, I’m sure you’re no stranger to the chaos that seems to come with them. Somehow in that instance, an unset pannacotta or a dry pork loin can seem like the worst of human tragedies. But, perhaps taking a leaf from Ottolenghi’s aura of calm, this documentary only seems to have quiet catastrophes. In amongst a huge production like this, the mishaps seem comically understated. When Kasko’s mousse splits and a well-meaning onlooker tries mansplain cocoa butter to her, she softly repeats in Ukrainian that his method simply will not do. In another instance, as Bompas wheels in a giant fountain of liquid, the gallery staff look on in subtle horror. Meanwhile, we’re quietly informed that water is not even allowed in the gallery. For those of us used to the ups and downs of shows like Masterchef, these moments serve to bring some base entertainment in a film that is otherwise quite zen.

But as the documentary comes to a close, the peacefulness is only at the surface level. Ottolenghi lays out an uncomfortable contrast between Food as an Artform versus Food as Necessity. Harkening back to the opulence of Versailles which inevitably led to its downfall, he leaves us with a warning. A warning not to be too dazzled by the top dogs of today. But although I could definitely respect and agree with this message, I felt like it was a little out of place in a film that was already trying to touch on so many themes. I mean, to be honest, there wasn’t as much about Versailles as I had hoped. I think I was expecting some deep-dive into the history of Marie Antoinette and Louis XIV but instead, we mostly saw Versailles through the artwork of the chefs. And to be fair, it’s a film about art rather than history and if you take it as such, you’ll be pretty entertained.




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