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Interview: Director Laura Gabbert on ‘Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles’

The decadent documentary Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles opens in theaters and on demand from IFC Films this Friday, September 25th. We had the chance to talk with director Laura Gabbert about the experience of creating this film.

Q: I really enjoyed this upbeat, appetizing film. How would you describe it in your own words?

A: The film captures a collaboration chef Yotam Ottolenghi and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City put on together. The LiveArts department of the MET organizes events that try to shine light on their current exhibits. In December 2018, there was a show called Visitors to Versailles. They invited Yotam in to plan an event that would explore the time, history, culture, and food through a pastry event. He selected five pastry chefs from around the world to reflect the international nature of Versailles, which this exhibit focused on, and invited them to use the ingredients, the flavor, the technology of the time to inspire modern-day pastries that would also bring people into the museum to see this exhibit and learn about the history. They could learn about Versailles and also eat some amazing desserts.

Q: Who or what would you say is the protagonist of this film?

A: That’s a great question, and it was one of the most difficult things about making the film. There are many components and points of view. I think the protagonist, or at least the main focus of the film, is the retelling of the rise and fall of Versailles through pastry. Yotam is our guide, taking us on this journey, and we’re learning and discovering as he learns and discovers. He’s trying to connect these dots.

Q: This is not the first time you’ve made a film about food. Where does this interest come from, and how did this experience differ from your previous film, City of Gold?

A: I was most interested in following Jonathan Gold for that film to see how he gets to know cities and communities through food. That’s what his writing had done for me when I first moved to Los Angeles. It really opened up the city to me. In making that film, I was reminded constantly that food is this wonderful portal through which we can access different people, communities, and ethnicities in a sensory way that also gives you a better understanding, with more compassion. Hopefully, it brings people together. When you make a film, you sort of get pigeonholed and people start thinking you’re the person to go to for a food doc. I think it’s a wonderful way to explore cultural and political issues.

Q: You also made a film called No Impact Man. This film seems like the opposite of that – there is absolutely a huge impact from what’s being shown here. How do you reconcile that?

I don’t. No, I’m kidding. You can’t help but look at the rise and fall of Versailles and not notice that. It was a time of incredible excess and decadence, and the French monarchy was actually promoting that. They had mastery over the arts and technology, and that was their PR campaign. When you read the history and see it start to crumble, there are clear parallels between then and now. That was one of the things we wanted to do in making the film. Yotam and I talked early on about wanting to feel a climax in the event and see the waste in it as well.

Q: In the film, we see a bit of friction between some of the chefs. Was there more that didn’t make it into the mostly pleasant final product?

A: It wasn’t a competition. They were there to show what they could do and draw on certain aspects of patisserie historically. There’s also a lot of pressure on them, working in new kitchens and needing to be able to pull this off. Honestly, there wasn’t that much friction. Most of that is captured. There were frustrations, like not getting the right ingredients. The MET is a labyrinth – their ingredients would show up at the other side of the MET and they would be hunting for them. The frustrations were more logistical than interpersonal.

Q: Was there anything that surprised you about Yotam or any of the other chefs?

A: I was a fan of Yotam’s before this. I had his cookbooks. He’s very warm and curious, and was genuinely excited about this event. I’m always struck whenever I see an amazing chef and the rigor they bring to their work. It’s hard work. They’re working around the clock to do this. In the age of celebrity chefs, we think it looks so glamorous, but most of it is not.

Q: How do a film and project like this coexist in a world that brings us Nailed It! and other competition shows where bakers are struggling to imitate rather than successfully pulling it off?

A: I don’t watch most of those shows. I think it’s amazing to see people at the top of their game doing something like this. The chefs were looking over their shoulders, curious what everyone else was doing, but they’re all doing such different things that it took away that element of competition. They had such different types of crafts, from a sensory experience that’s almost conceptual art to 3-D molds to a more traditional pastry chef. I think they were all thrilled to be there with each other.

Q: I was struck most by the reality that this kind of public exhibit that has to be attended and witnessed in person probably won’t be happening again anytime soon. Do you think that it’s something we’ll come back to or, like Versailles, this is a piece of history we won’t be returning to?

A: I think we will get back to something like that. The pendulum swings back and forth. I hope we learn something from all of this. People do love to gather. It’s what’s wonderful about going to the movies or to museums. We want to experience culture in a group. The same is true for restaurants and parties. It’s just part of being human – we want to come together.

Q: This film is obviously not being released widely in theaters right now, and may be watched by more people at home on demand. Is that a disappointment?

A: There’s nothing like going to a theater, and for this film, we had an amazing cinematographer, Judy Phu, who did a great job. So you do miss a little not seeing it on a big screen, including being at the MET and Versailles. But I think there’s something very intimate about Yotam, and he and the other chefs bring you into their world and their process.

Q: Who do you think your primary target audience is for this film?

A: People do love to look at food. People love anything food-related. There are lots of Yotam fans out there who will certainly love it. I never used to watch cooking videos and I find myself relaxing that way these days. We all need some joy and escapism right now. The film tells another cautionary tale, but it’s mostly vicarious, seeing everyone eating and being at a museum. I hope that younger people will be brought into it. We do try to fold in some history to give it some context, and food is such a great way to sneak in other messages.

Q: Your film is short but still feels like a deep dive into history and cuisine.

A: It’s a brisk 75 minutes! I always like that in a film.

Q: What are some of your favorite food movies?

A: I love Babette’s Feast. That’s one of my go-tos. It’s just kind of sublime.

Q: Did you get to try a lot of the desserts?

A: People always ask me this because I make food-related films. I generally never get to because I’m just working the whole time and don’t have my hands free. In this case, after the event was over, there were some desserts left. My crew and I definitely partook. We especially enjoyed all the jellies that were alcohol-infused after a long day of work.

Q: What’s your favorite dessert?

A: I’m really more of a savory person than a sweet person. Basically, my favorite dessert is a cheese plate. I do also love a mousse or a really good pastry.

Q: There isn’t actually a lot of eating in this movie – more of the preparation.

A: Yes, it’s more the presentation, mimicking the time of Versailles, where it was all about spreading the wealth and glory of France. We definitely tried to weave in a bit of the eating and destruction of the cakes and desserts to finish that Versailles story.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: Since early April, I’ve been working on a project collaborating with Ruth Reichl, the former editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine and memoirist. It’s a documentary about the impact of COVID on the food landscape. Ruth is in the film, conducting all of the conversations via Zoom but also in the field. We’re talking to restaurant owners, chefs, farmers, ranchers, and fisherman trying to take a look at how interconnected it all is and how COVID has amplified what’s broken about the system. It’s also about how people are pivoting and adapting, looking at some of the hopeful stories as well.

IFC Films will release Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles in theaters and on demand on Friday, September 25th.

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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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