Stewing Over Ratatouille
by Marion Renault
This fall — like sourdough starters and victory gardens before it — Pixar's “Ratatouille” underwent a pandemic renaissance when bored-in-the-house-and-in-the-house-bored TikTok users staged a musical version of the beloved animated film.
And starting Jan. 1, there was even an actual “Ratatouille: The Musical” — a streamed performance benefiting The Actors Fund.
In a rare bit of delight in an otherwise devastating year, the DIY project embodied its Oscar-winning namesake’s exaltation of unexpected virtuosity and the splendor of humble beginnings. It proved, as the movie’s animated food critic Anton Ego famously says, "A great artist can come from anywhere."
And yet. I could not enjoy it.
For years, “Ratatouille” (The Movie) has delighted and deranged me in equal measure.
As a French native, I’ve spent an entire lifetime eating ratatouille — my grandma's, my mom's, and, now, my own. I can assure you the eponymous dish served to Ego in one of the film's most iconic montages, is not it.
Sure, it has all the right ingredients: tomato, onion, zucchini, eggplant, peppers.
But Pixar’s elegant, architectural entrée glamorizes a dish whose identity is anything but. Ratatouille — a word that blends the French for "chunky stew" and "stir” — was originally cooked and eaten by Provence farmers who had to find a way to use up fresh summer vegetables that ripened all at once. Today, it remains nostalgic and unpolished; its recipe is more often spoken than written, and one that measures ingredients not in grams but in tu vois combien (“you see how much”).
“Ratatouille is really messy,” says New York University food studies professor Fabio Parasecoli, who, like me, was initially confused by what was served in its name in the animated film. “When I saw it, I was like, ‘What is that?’”
And you know what’s even more maddening than the fact that Pixar’s mischaracterization has led American audiences to mistakenly believe this is how the dish is supposed to be? “Ratatouille”’s ratatouille aside, the film is a masterclass in culinary authenticity.
The makers of “Ratatouille” went to extraordinary, globe-trotting lengths to ensure they properly depicted the rhythm, lighting and dynamics of French gastronomy. Producers palled around with world-renowned chefs, and travelled to Paris to studiously dine at the city’s finest establishments.
Its animators considered the physics of sloshing soups and chopping knives. They toyed with how gravity tugs at dollops of caviar and reconstructed the cellular pattern of a baguette’s air holes. They captured the springiness of a kneaded ball of bread dough, the translucence of a fine wine, and the heat waves emanating off a flambé.
“We wanted the food to have an internal glow, to let things settle and feel soft,” a production effect artist on the movie told me. “Food was essential to the movie. It had to look good, and appealing.”
When the movie came out in 2007, the fruits of this labor did not escape even the penetrating gaze of the late Anthony Bourdain, who opined that it was “a measure of how deficient Hollywood has been in making an accurate restaurant-food based film that far and away the best was about an animated rat. They got the food, the reactions to food, and tiny details to food really right.”
And yet, their sacrilegious interpretation of ratatouille— which is actually much more of a meticulously-arranged confit byaldi or tian — feels so contrary to the film’s core truth. The joy of “Ratatouille” emerges from its inversion of our expectations for cooking, eating and enjoying food. “Peasant food becomes haute cuisine, rats become diners, and a critic becomes an adoring fan,” two scholars wrote of the film in 2011.
I understand, intellectually, that this is the point: If you gussy up a peasant dish enough, it can be worthy of a Michelin-starred restaurant. Just like if you perch a synesthetic rat on a gangly man’s head, the marionette-ish amalgam can also, apparently, be Michelin-worthy. But assez! Does “Anyone can cook” mean “Anything can be ratatouille”?
I don’t think so. Ratatouille didn’t need to be deconstructed and reconstructed beyond recognition in order to become art; it already was. Ratatouille — that muddled mess of vegetables, too ripe for the vine, too precious for any coddling — is harvest’s last gasp, in a bowl. What could better convince a snobby food critic of the artistry in everyday cooking than that?
Ratatouille, the dish, is almost as old as classical French cuisine itself, which began taking its hegemonic form in the early 17th century as the country’s cooks and cookbooks alike spread throughout Europe.
By 1834, Paris and its 2,000 restaurants had entered a“golden age of gastronomy,” defined by exquisite ingredients and sumptuous accommodations. In 1867, chef Adolphe Dugléré reached the height of this refinery by serving Russian and Prussian nobility one of the most expensive meals in history: a devastatingly rich spread of soufflés, creamed chicken, fillets of sole, sorbets, lobster, ducklings, pâté and eight different wines.
Haute cuisine — a privilege of the elite, distinct from cooking as a form of proletariat survival — fell out of favor during the austerity of World War I and II.
By the ‘70s, however, a new interest in French cooking percolated. The nouvelle cuisine movement did away with the heavily sauced and embellished dishes of classical dining. Instead, its disciples found inspiration in an unfussy, artisanal approach to food that favored whatever ingredient was most in season (therefore, in diametric opposition to its predecessor, whatever was cheapest).
“This type of cuisine was in essence a return to the cooking traditions of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, a return to the roots of French culinary art, and to popular regional dishes,” writes the academic Ann Lair, “showing that luxurious dishes could come from simple ingredients.”
Nouvelle cuisine’s ethos enraptured Americans like James Beard, M. F. K. Fisher and Julia Child, who “drew on near-mythical recollections of their first great French meals,” writes Bee Wilson in The New Yorker. These meals — oysters and sole for Child; bread, salad and petit-suisse cheese for Fisher; champagne and caviar for Beard — were steeped in a fetish for simplicity.
And through these food writers, American readers began to fall for French cooking like it was their long-distance paramour, believing, as Wilson puts it, “that France is a magical place where the butter is sweeter and the bread crackles more loudly; where stews are more tender and friendships are more ardent.”
The tug-of-war between the luxury of finesse and the luxury of humility has defined the country’s culinary history. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that it is also centered in “Ratatouille” — or that the film’s eponymous dish is trapped in the same tension.
All evidence suggests Pixar was resolutely committed to “Ratatouille”’s culinary authenticity.
Employees of the animation company took classes at Bay Area cooking schools for years, carefully studying how chefs spoke, held their knives and stirred pots.
Some of the filmmakers travelled to Paris to eat at the city’s top restaurants — sometimes sampling up to 29 courses in a single sitting. (“It was an embarrassment of crazy high-end delicious food,” producer Brad Lewis told The Ringer in 2017.)
A select few at Pixar also worked closely with famed chef Thomas Keller, apprenticing at his Napa Valley restaurant where they tasted Russian caviar, basted foie gras and folded tortellini. A leather-jacketed Anthony Bourdain even stopped by Pixar to talk shop, according to The Ringer.
And the team’s animators stepped up to the inordinately difficult challenge in front of them. As production designer Harley Jessup explains, computer-generated food “has the potential of looking really disturbing.”
The team dedicated itself to avoiding the many trap doors that could have dropped its depiction of food — from compost piles to walk-in fridges and sweetbread-cooked-in-a-seaweed-salt-crust-with-cuttlefish-tentacle-dog-rose-purée-geoduck-egg-dried-white-fungus-anchovy-licorice-sauce — straight into the uncanny valley.
“The problem for us is, since the audience cannot taste nor smell the dish, how do we translate that visual design of the cuisine to the computerized world of our movie?” writes Pixar producer Jun Han Cho in the syllabus of a course about how the team ultimately pulled it off. “The audience must rely on their eyes and their imagination to determine that the cuisine we show them is delicious and worth eating.”
Ultimately, they succeeded. The movie was a global hit. It won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film and outpaced its estimated budget of $150 million, grossing almost $625 million worldwide.
“I was quite impressed,” says NYU’s Parasecoli, who saw the film while working as a food critic. “They really upped the ante. Clearly food was the star of the movie. Not just in the background, not just a prop.”
And when it came to the actual ratatouille, producers similarly envisioned a showstopper.
To develop its aesthetic, they asked Chef Keller how he would prepare the peasant dish for the world’s most famous critic. Keller, inspired by confit byaldi, brought them the concept of a thinly-sliced accordion of vegetables nestled in tomato sauce.
The final presentation struck a chord with unfamiliar audience members.
Drake Johnson, a 10-year-old, hot-dog-loving, ratatouille-neophyte, told SFGate after an early screening of “Ratatouille”: “It looked so good, I'd like to try it."
This is the part that pains me: Americans might not recognize my mother's ratatouille because of this movie.
They might even think hers, an actual mushy stew, unappealing. Not only does Pixar’s stylized creation feel like a complete perversion of a beloved family meal, but it undermines the film's supposedly equalizing narrative. In order for ratatouille to be a worthy dish, it had to stop being ratatouille.
The effect artist I spoke with saw it differently. For them, “Ratatouille” is about the thrill of the unexpected, the artistry of reinvention. In the movie’s pivotal sequence, in which Remy the Rat has to persuade Anton Ego he can cook, how could he serve him a provincial ratatouille? “It felt wrong for him to make something so rustic, so traditional,” the effect artist told me. “It wasn’t meant to be deconstructed, crazy. It was meant to be original.”
And to be fair, the movie does (for eight seconds) depict the dish in its rustic form, when Ego’s first bite of Remy’s ratatouille transports him through time and space to his mother’s stew. Arguably, this flashback to the past is the reimagined dish’s truest and most convincing virtue.
This admission — along with several others in my years of stewing over “Ratatouille” — throws my indignity for a loop. Was Remy’s dish a betrayal? Or was it a love letter to the never-ending evolution of French cuisine?
And what does it say about me? Am I Remy, or am I like Anton Ego? Am I a proud countryman decrying a cultural abomination? Or am I (in stereotypical French fashion) being a total snob?
In 2010, Chef James B. Simpkins described the attitude French natives assume about the cultural currency of their cuisine. During an apprenticeship in a patisserie in Provence, Simpkins recalls his boss's nationalism. “Truly French food could not be accurately produced by a Midwesterner like me any more than berets could be said to be from Copenhagen,” Simpkins writes. No matter how perfect the apprentice’s pastry or purée, “the knowledge I am American seems always to leave the most room for improvement.”
This kind of overprotectiveness over “authentic” food is common enough among the immigrants or bicultural among us. It also might simply be a symptom of modern food culture, as Aaron Timms diagnoses in The New Republic. “Food today is a vehicle not only for sustenance or pleasure, but for a certain type of truth — for tastes and sensations that are true to their place and the experience of their creators.”
But how much of its origins does food need to imbibe in order to retain its identity? And what do we owe the nagging rage that results when it doesn’t feel like enough?
A smart editor who rejected this very pitch told me, “I think you might perhaps let go of some of your pain about what you think Americans think about ratatouille.” After all, I live with the knowledge that despite their monikers, neither French dressing nor French toast share my heritage.
So here I am, an Anton Ego turned Auguste Gusteau. I drop my pen. I close my eyes. I find peace. Somewhere out there, an American is slicing tomatoes, zucchini and eggplant paper thin, arranging the rounds in an eye-catching spiral, and, after a certain amount of time cooking — tu vois combiens — they’re sitting down to enjoy ratatouille.
Illustrations by Mariana Pelaez
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