THE BACK PAGES

Chefs dine out on 'Ratatouille’

An animated movie about a rat in a Parisian kitchen is the latest foodie obsession

ANNE KINGSTON July 30 2007
THE BACK PAGES

Chefs dine out on 'Ratatouille’

An animated movie about a rat in a Parisian kitchen is the latest foodie obsession

ANNE KINGSTON July 30 2007

Chefs dine out on 'Ratatouille’

taste

An animated movie about a rat in a Parisian kitchen is the latest foodie obsession

ANNE KINGSTON

In a development as unexpected as foam’s popularity as a main course, Ratatouille, Pixar’s new animated movie about a rat named Remy who infiltrates a Parisian restaurant kitchen aspiring to become a chef, has been declared a foodie cult classic, a gourmet Sideways. Chef, author and food-television denizen Anthony Bourdain proclaims it “the best food movie ever made, the best restaurant movie ever made— the best chef movie.” Chef and author Michael Ruhlman extols it on his blog ruhlman.com as “a paean to passionate cooking and a moving description of the professional kitchen.” New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni is obsessed, writing about the movie two days in a row last week—the first time to enthuse that it “affirms the triumph of food snobs and fetishists,” the second to distance himself from the more dastardly qualities of the movie’s restaurant-critic character, Anton Ego. Restaurateurs are flocking to see it. Chef Bob Berman, co-owner of Toronto’s Boba, took his nine-year-old goddaughter. Afterwards, they made a grilled version of the title dish for dinner.

Ratatouille’s reception as culinary cinémavérité is a testament to the movie’s magical hyperrealism—the gleaming copper of the batterie de cuisine, the precise rendering of Riedel stemware, the exact labelling of a bottle of Château Latour. Details are as impeccable as Pixar money and ingenuity permitted. Thomas Keller, the brilliant chef behind Napa’s French Laundry and New York City’s Per Se, was retained as a consultant. Industry insiders see the fastidious Remy as a wholly Keller-esque creation. “The way Remy slices the ingredients, the way each is considered and handled as if it matters as much as the

dish as a whole—that’s Keller,” Zak Pelaccio, a former saucier at the French Laundry, told New York magazine.

Kitchen professionals trill about Ratatouille’s bang-on depiction of chef culture, down to the knife skills. Bourdain lauds such subtle references as the faded burns on the cooks’ wrists. Berman was impressed by the kitchen’s design and rendering. “I coveted it,” he jokes. Alison Fryer, manager of Toronto’s Cookbook Store, praises the movie’s clever depiction of kitchen hierarchy.

Parsing Ratatouille’s accuracy has become a fixation among people who quibble over the distinction between sel gris and fleur de sel. Finding an error is a badge of culinary cred. One commenter on Ruhlman’s blog gripes about a chef in the movie yelling out “prepare the veal stomachs!”: “In any kitchen they would have just said sweetbreads, but if the writers wanted to get across to the audience what sweetbreads are, the stomach is not it. Perhaps they thought ‘prepare the veal thymus’ or ‘prepare the veal pancreas’ did not sound as good.” Berman observes Ego orders a ’47 Cheval Blanc but appears to receive another vintage. Ruhlman claims the movie’s only misstep was Remy transforming a soup ruined by the principal human character, Linguini, into something ethereal. Since

the soup was over-salted, he says, it would be impossible to fix. Even the inspiration for Ego’s character is a source of competitive chatter, the odds-on favourite being the caustic British reviewer A.A. Gill.

That a big-budget, mass-market Pixar flick is teaching children—and adults—what a souschef is is in keeping with the egalitarian spirit of the movie. Certainly the movie’s marketers had little faith in the audience’s culinary sophistication: they spell out the movie’s title phonetically (“Rat-a-too-ee”) on its poster. And though critics like Frank Bruni want to see Ratatouille as “a defence of discrimination: of a discriminating palate,” the movie offers a deft, subversive takedown of precious food snobbery and snotty reviewers. The critic Ego reserves his harshest critcism for himself, noting that simply striving for art is more difficult, more courageous, more valuable than the efforts of the best critics. That revelation comes after tasting the fabulous title dish concocted by Remy, which recasts the mundane Provençal stew as a sublime, elegant version of a vegetable byaldi, a Turkish dish made with similar ingredients. But it’s not the dish’s appearance or spicing that transports him; it’s that it summons a taste memory from his childhood. Still, that won’t stop gourmands in the audience from salivating for the recipe. Or from the hard-core among them bragging that it can be found in Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook, on page 178. M