Remember when toilet paper was the hottest commodity in town? Well, now there’s a new shortage: flour. All of a sudden, everyone’s really into baking cinnamon rolls and artisanal focaccia. (And banana bread. Lots of banana bread.) Yet, while many have traced this to the popularity of either The Great British Bake Off or the Bon Appétit YouTube channel, there’s another piece of culinary media we need to talk about that predates both of these. It’s Pixar’s Ratatouille.
Released in 2007, the plot of Ratatouille is as follows: A rat, Remy (Patton Oswalt), harbors a deep passion for cooking and dreams of emulating his chef-idol, Auguste Gusteau. But he can’t fulfill these ambitions because, well, he’s a rat. Still, undeterred, Remy finds his way into Gusteau’s Restaurant in Paris – concealing himself inside the hat of the inept garbage boy, Alfredo Linguini (Lou Romano). The pair soon discover that, by tugging on locks of his hair, Remy can control Linguini’s movements in the kitchen, and their special relationship brings huge success to the restaurant through their cooking of glorious meals. (Seemingly unmarketable, this strange and wonderful film went on to make over $600 million.)
The ghost of Chef Gusteau remains a presence throughout the film, reminding Remy of his famous motto: “Anyone can cook.” It’s a sweet and motivating adage, but given our current exploits in quarantine, we may find ourselves wondering whether or not we took the creed of Gusteau too literally. Was it really Ratatouille that ignited our current obsession with ‘food porn’ and the heightened intellectualism surrounding what we consume?
If Remy were a person, he’d be Julia Child. Just like the woman who taught French cuisine to a generation of Americans, Remy is a reminder that great cooks need not come from conventional backgrounds. He embodies a more democratic approach to cooking; what he lacks in tradition, he makes up in creativity. I’m reminded of Remy every time I try improvising a recipe that I’m vaguely following – and often one that I barely have half the ingredients for. If a rat can do it, why can’t I?
That said, Remy isn’t the only unlikely cook depicted in Ratatouille. As the sole female chef, Colette (Janeane Garofalo) has also faced many obstacles in her own life. She speaks of the antiquated hierarchy of haute cuisine and how it was “built upon rules written by stupid, old, men.” We learn that all the cooks at Gusteau’s have come from similarly unexpected backgrounds: circus people, gun smugglers, possible murderers. It’s true that we bring our own stories to the kitchen; as far as cooking goes, at least, you cannot separate the art from the artist. Instead, we are bound to our histories, our identities, and most importantly, what we have in the fridge.
Back in the summer of 2007, in a world before Ratatouille, the people’s relationship to food was vastly different. A strong sense of anti-intellectualism was permeating throughout culture: it was difficult to find a vegan option on a menu (and as for gluten-free, forget it); there were no food porn accounts, no Claire’s “Gourmet Makes” in Bon Appétit’s test kitchen. And while much was changing elsewhere alongside these new developments, none of them exist in a vacuum, and as far as I’m concerned, Remy is deservedly a cultural icon. Ratatouille opened the doors for our new attitudes towards food and cooking – there genuinely does seem to be a belief that anyone can cook, which is a wonderful thing. Had we lived through this pandemic prior to 2007, I do wonder whether we would all be flocking to the baking powder with such remarkable enthusiasm.
Over the last decade, food has become much more centralized in cultural communication. What we eat is an important indicator of power, class, and cultural capital. With Remy a member of the rural poor and Linguini representative of the urban working poor, their presence in the kitchen proposes that great food is not just for the urban elite. This is emphasized at the very apex of the film when the titular dish is served to critic Anton Ego. Here, the film rejects the class signifiers assigned to certain cuisines: Despite being labeled as “peasant’s food,” Ego’s euphoric response breaks down the unnecessary hierarchies placed upon food. While Remy’s ratatouille isn’t the exact same dish that Ego’s mother once made, it does crucially evoke similar emotions of childhood bliss. Even in an unprecedented global pandemic, watching Ratatouille is a reminder to eat the food that made us once feel happy.
“Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”
Ratatouille both predicted and enabled the rise of a new food culture, and as we continue to self-isolate, the chances to experiment with food are plentiful. While some may still agree with Remy’s misunderstanding father in that “food is [just] fuel,” Ratatouille teaches us to play with our food until something remarkable happens. Now is the time to follow in the footsteps of this magnificent rat chef.