Ottolenghi and the cakes of Versailles
Sundance vet Laura Gabbert (No Impact Man, Sunset Story) is no stranger to the foodie world. She staged the City of Gold in 2015, which accompanies the Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer Jonathan Gold on his culinary excursions through LA. Now, with Ottolenghi and the cakes of Versailles, Gabbert turns her lens to the other coast and across the pond and travels time and space with seven-time bestselling cookbook author from the NY Times and renowned restaurant owner Yotam Ottolenghi. Although the Israeli Jew (whose business partner is a Jerusalem-born Muslim) lives in London, he is invited by the Met to curate an edible, cake-oriented exhibition inspired by the decadence of Versailles. Of course, Ottolenghi does what any modern man in the world would – he visits Instagram to put together a culturally diverse team of the most modern pastry chefs one can find.
The troupe includes top-class pastry chefs such as James Beard award winner Dominique Ansel, inventor of the Cronut, and Ghaya F. Oliveira, the Tunisian-born Executive Pastry Chef at the Michelin-starred Daniel restaurant in NYC. But there are also London-based jelly wizards Sam Bompas and Harry Parr (Bompas & Parr), Singaporean Janice Wong, who specializes in “interactive edible art” (and once built a chocolate wall – an installation that screams when staged on the U.S.-Mexico border, there has ever been one) and the relatively unknown (if not long) Dinara Kasko, an architecture-trained Ukrainian cook who uses 3D modeling technology to make building-inspired cakes. In other words, Ottolenghi and the Versailles cakes are both a study of artistic creation and a feast for the eyes.
Before the document was released on September 25th via IFC Films, the filmmaker reached out to Gabbert to learn everything about the project, from finding fast foodie funding to filming the Versailles Banquet.
Filmmakers: How did this document come about? It almost seems like an extension of your previous work, especially City of Gold.
Gabbert: This project was brought to me by producer Steve Robilliard and Original Productions. They were already in talks with Yotam about his collaboration with the Met. I got on board as a director a few months before the shoot.
I was thrilled to work with Yotam and intrigued by the challenge of making a film about the rise and fall of Versailles through Confectionery. I suppose the film is an extension of City of Gold in that way. Essen is such a reliable starting point for delving deeper into cultural, historical and political issues.
Filmmakers: While the film is precisely about Ottolenghi, all of the other characters seem to have been the stars of their own documents as well. So did you have to leave a lot of footage on the cutting room floor, or did you deliberately avoid getting too involved with the other artists' stories?
Gabbert: I agree. Yotam selected five fascinating pastry chefs. As the film was shot in 12 days, we simply didn't have the time or budget to travel to Ukraine to immerse ourselves in Dinara Kasko's life, for example.
The focus had to remain on preparing for the event itself and on Yotam's process of researching and learning about Versailles and the history of pastry making. There were many points to connect: the Met exhibition “Visitors to Versailles”; the story of Versailles; the history of the pastry shop; the five confectioners; and then of course Yotam himself. I didn't want Yotam to be just our guide through the process of the event. I hope that the brief biographical forays into Yotam give the collaboration an important level of context.
So much great stuff has been cut. There is a scene we filmed with Yotam on a train ride from Paris to Versailles, where he talks about his childhood food in Israel and the difference in the way the French appropriated Italian cuisine. That was a difficult scene.
Filmmakers: I found the final unveiling of the "Versailles Festival" unexpectedly moving towards the end. Can you talk a little bit about the creative choices behind this sequence, especially the music and use of steadicam?
Gabbert: Ryan Rumery's beautiful score was key to editing this sequence. He and I discussed the emotions we wanted to capture and that they also had to support a lot of VO from Yotam. It's the emotion of every chef's performance – and later in the sequence, the music had to support the story of the fall of Versailles as well. By the time we started the first cut, Ryan had already provided pretty elaborate musical sketches. His interpretation of the sequence completely influenced the editing of the film's last 10 minutes.
Being able to use a steadicam to make a documentary is a luxury. We knew this was key to capturing the pastry chef's presentation tables and desserts and the excitement of the event. Our DP Judy Phu and I wanted this sequence to have a lot of movement and emotion – so that you felt like you were there, walking through the Petrie gallery. We also had riflemen stationed at each chef's table so we could capture more intimate moments between the chefs and guests.
Filmmakers: They work with a mostly female team, and Ottolenghi, a gay Jew from Jerusalem with a Muslim business partner, seems incredibly committed to inclusivity, inviting culinary artists from diverse cultures, with half of the chosen ones being women. They also contain a narrative scene from Mansplaining, in which the Ukrainian “architect chef” Dinara Kasko is involved. All of this has asked me how important it was for you to highlight everyday misogyny and cultural appropriation – Ottolenghi even points out that the French appropriated the Italians' pastries – in this rare culinary world. (With the elitism, of course, ironically exemplified by both the Met and Versailles.)
Gabbert: I think Yotam really set the tone for the film in his selection of pastry chefs. I think it's great that three of the five chefs he chose were women. One of the reasons I wanted to work with Yotam is because he's an anomaly in the world of celebrity chefs. He's cerebral, clever, and kind. There is no such thing as bravery.
One of the beats of Yotam's story I fought for is when he talks about starting out in the kitchen as a young chef and how he felt as an outsider in this testosterone-fueled climate. He goes on to explain that when he had his own restaurants he wanted the environment to be gentler and more respectful. I think part of what made this collaboration fruitful was that there was an immediate simpatico between Yotam and key creatives on my team (producer Steve Robilliard and DP Judy Phu).
The decision to include the Dinara hull scene (not that we could have planned it) felt right in terms of the overall tone and message of the film – especially given all of the toxic masculinity stories in the food world that surfaced in the world are last couple of years.
Filmmakers: On the one hand, Ottolenghi is a famous name in the culinary world and the subject is selling. On the other hand, there have been quite a few gourmet documents in recent years. In the end, how difficult was it to get funding?
Gabbert: The film was developed by Steve Robillard at Original Productions and co-funded by 50 Degrees Entertainment and Original Productions. Funding went pretty quickly thanks to Mohamed AlRafi and Paula Manzanedo from 50 Degrees Entertainment.