The making of “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles” was as complex as the confections created by the renowned pastry chefs it focuses on — and the result is equal parts beauty for both food and film.
The IFC Films documentary (in select theaters and on demand Sept. 25) follows chef Yotam Ottolenghi as he assembles an Avengers-like team of pastry chefs to bring the splendor and beauty of Versailles, in dessert form, to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for the opening of a special exhibit about the French palace.
Helmer Laura Gabbert had read Ottolenghi’s unique recipe books; when she heard that he was the subject of the film, she wanted to be a part of the project. “I just kind of knew that any documentary placing him at the center would be special,” she says.
Audiences see Ottolenghi traveling around the world, tapping Dominique Ansel, who invented the cronut; London duo Sam Bompas and Harry Parr; Ukraine-based Dinara Kasko; Tunisian Ghaya Oliveira, who works in New York restaurant Daniel; and Singapore’s Janice Wong, giving them carte blanche to create confections worthy of Versailles.
The trick for the filmmakers was capturing the chefs at work under less than ideal circumstances and on a very condensed 11-day schedule. “A lot of the food was being prepared in the kitchens right in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And the kitchens are very industrial; the lighting is terrible,” says Gabbert, who is no stranger to food docs, having directed “City of Gold,” about Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold, and episodes of Netflix’s “Ugly Delicious,” among other credits.
Gabbert worked with DP Judy Phu to develop a strategy for the shoot. “I tried to pair each pastry chef with two camera operators,” says Phu. “I had one camera operator on a shorter zoom lens, so that they could get [both] close and wide angles and be physically present,” giving viewers a feeling of being right by the chefs. “And then I moved the second camera operator further away on a telephoto zoom, capturing the texture of all of their work.” This allowed editors Philip Owens and Faroukh Virani to play with the different types of rhythms caught by the different lenses. And if one cameraperson had to back off because they were getting in the way, “my telephoto camera operator was still able to capture everything else,” Phu says.
Phu’s main cameras were the Canon C300 Mark II. “We definitely wanted to go with a floaty camera feeling,” she says. Her team didn’t use tripods but mostly leaned on a handheld strategy, either “shoulder work or hugging-the-hips type of work.” Adds the DP: “I had a Steadicam operator who floated through the space. We had too many GoPros there — my cameras were definitely allowed just to capture anything; we had one in a freezer somewhere that ended up dying.”
Phu notes that the chefs are “pretty savvy about filming and lighting and photography themselves,” being veterans of social media, and sometimes they moved themselves and their creations into a better light for the cameras. “So everybody kind of collaborated in a moment’s time.”
Though the film is about the confluence of beauty and the culinary arts, the lighting Gabbert and Phu had to work with was a challenge. “As I walked through the kitchen spaces, I was definitely like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is a lot of metal and steel that bounces light everywhere,” says Phu. “Everything is fluorescent light, because people who work in kitchens need to see everything.” So the DP abandoned the idea of stylizing the spaces and embraced the grittiness of the light available. “I just had to lean into all of that and rely on beautiful compositions more than lighting, because I could never add light in that space.” More light would add more heat, which could melt a meticulously modeled glacé, or the gelatin sculptures created by Bompas and Parr, or Ansel’s delicate confectionary swans. “You cannot affect temperatures for a pastry chef,” Phu cautions. When she did have to use additional lighting, the elements were small, very low-heat-emitting LED lights.
The night of the gala presentation of the Met exhibit, Gabbert, Phu and the producers created a complex strategy, complete with a grid, a floor plan and an Excel spreadsheet, to choreograph the camera crews and the partygoers in the Met’s sculpture hall admiring the chefs’ creations, making sure the filmmaking team captured the best footage but didn’t knock over any priceless art in the process.
“It wasn’t a competition show,” Gabbert says. “It was really this exploration of food as our history, culture. And we also really tried to steer clear of the ‘chef’s table’ model [with] slow-mo and locked-off camera. We wanted to have a fluid kind of curious feel — and reflect, on film, Yotam’s curious mind.”