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Realizing Ratatouille February 19, 2008

Posted by Alex Sawit in In My Opinion.
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By Alex Sawit

19 February 2008

 

As part of the Chinese New Year celebration at Cyrano (we officially celebrated on the 15th so as to include a few folks we had been waiting for), I thought I’d mark the Year of the Rat by revisiting a movie that extols the virtues of our four-legged friend, honored in the Chinese zodiac for its cleverness and hard-working nature. “Kong hei fat choy!”

 

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“Anyone can cook.”

So goes the catchphrase from my favorite film of 2007, Ratatouille, that computer-animated movie about a little blue rat who goes to Paris with dreams of becoming a chef. I love that movie from start to finish, from the moment I hear “Les Marseilles” to the moment I see Rémy’s happy new bistro overlooking the rooftops of Paris at the ending. It’s a whimsical yet thought-provoking tale (thanks to the storytelling genius of writer-director Brad Bird), which persuades us in a most imaginative way that no one be disqualified when it comes to food. There are cooks and there are great cooks. But while not everyone can be a great cook, anyone can strive to make food better.

Not surprisingly, the folks in France loved this movie. Take it from a people who are proud of their culinary spirit to rejoice about a movie like this. Even the narrator’s opening line affirms what the French believe about themselves, that “the best food in the world is made in France” (although the narrator hedges by conceding that other countries will dispute this…buon appetito, anyone?).

 

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“It’s been a long time since any film celebrated, with so much kitsch energy, France: its cuisine, its finest features, and Paris, capital of taste,” gushed the entertainment magazine Télérama as the movie went on to make almost $16 million on its first week, eventually shattering French box-office records for an animated feature film. Le Monde proclaimed the movie “one of the greatest gastronomic films in the history of cinema.”

I understand what they mean. There have been food films before but none has portrayed the journey of the cook as a heroic artist as poignantly as Ratatouille; that this has been achieved by an animated film makes it that much more unique. In the hands (technically paws) of our furry blue hero, food is transformed into something that has to be celebrated. French audiences get that. They approve when our hero exults in triumph after scoring a mushroom and Tome de Chèvre cheese outside an old country cottage; they cheer him when he takes over a disastrous sweet-bread recipe at Gusteau’s restaurant and improvises it into a sensational hit. Just like our hero, they too believe that making good food is something to be proud of and passionate about.

 

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Yet even as I smiled at how the French connected with this movie, I was taken aback by a different reaction on the opposite side of the Atlantic…in America.

Last December 2007, the American business magazine Fortune, famous for its listings of the world’s top corporations and wealthiest individuals, published its annual list of the “101 Dumbest Moments in Business.” Described by the editors as “the absolutely dumbest of the dumb that the gods of fate and humor delivered into our laps,” the list identified the year’s most hilarious lapses in judgment: the “Made in China” product recall, Eli Lily’s decision to market Prozac for dogs and Citigroup’s $11 billion subprime write-down fiasco are three of the stories that made the top ten.

 

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Stunningly, Ratatouille was No. 9 on the list.

The editors at Fortune didn’t poke fun at it directly. Instead they singled out the French newspaper Le Monde for having lavished the movie with so much affection. Unable to contain their chuckling, the Americans ridiculed their French counterparts for daring to suggest that a movie – an animated movie at that – about something as disgusting as a rat in the kitchen could qualify as one of the great gastronomic films of all time. “Ooh-la-la, gross!” were the magazine’s exact words.

Excuse me? Did we watch the same thing here?

It takes someone who has actually seen Ratatouille to fully appreciate the magnitude of ignorance that the magazine displayed. I have to come to the conclusion that the folks at Fortune never bothered to watch this.

What a bunch of morons.

There is something else, something that goes to the heart of what I believe about cuisine and culture. By revealing how clueless they were about the movie, the folks who dismissed it betrayed their ignorance about an Old World culture that happens to be acknowledged for its culinary excellence. How often does one read of Americans belittling the French about their core competency? It reeks of misplaced smugness for them to laugh to the tune of, “Hee-haw, do you Frenchies understand what you’re talking about?”

My point is that if the French, who appreciate great cuisine, can appreciate a fantasy about a four-pawed protagonist who has the courage to cook, what does this say about those who can’t figure it out?

Let’s explore this, shall we?

There is a saying among great travelers: If you want to understand a country, you have to eat it. I first heard this years ago from bon vivant cook Keith Floyd in his BBC series Floyd on Spain and I’ve been passing it to others ever since. A people’s food tells you a lot about who they are, what they believe in, what they value in life.

When celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain of No Reservations fame embarked on his first television adventure in Japan, it didn’t take long for him to be captivated – and humbled – by the Japanese culinary soul. As he traveled from one dish to another, from fresh soba in a noodle house to the Zen-like artistry of a kaiseki meal in a countryside inn, he encountered a spiritual respect for food that did not seem to have a counterpart in the West. No other people, he observed, are as obsessive about fresh ingredients and as compulsive about crafting those ingredients with impeccable precision as the Japanese.

“You do not see this level of knife skills in French kitchens,” he said admiringly while watching from his seat at the sushi counter.

It was so different, he reflected, from what was back home in America, where industrial quantities of burgers, pizzas, fried chicken and barbecue are put away by folks who feel that eating is about shoveling as much as you want. In the land of the eat-all-you-can buffet, bulk is bliss.

“For us, restaurants are like gas stations,” Bourdain lamented. “You pull in, you fill up and you move on, preferably as quickly as possible. The idea of volume is much more important than quality. “Hey, did you have a good meal? Yeah, they gave you all the shrimp you could eat!” That’s really silly. It explains a lot about our culture.”

To be fair, it should go without saying that there are a lot of Americans who have discriminating tastes. I for one have befriended many who take pride in cooking with authenticity and sophistication.

But Bourdain drives his point. It is his implicit observation that Americans are happy to settle for mediocre food as long as it is easy-to-cook and easy-to-eat. Hence his legendary contempt for food celebrities Rachael Ray and Sandra Lee, superstars of the Food Network who use media-savvy to cover up deficient kitchen skills and an appalling lack of talent (Bourdain has referred to both women on separate occasions as “evil”). The titles of their best-known shows, 30 Minute Meals and Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee, are tragically revealing.

 

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Clearly the most profiteering food charlatan in America today, Rachael Ray is cable television’s loudest advocate of kitchen cheats (why does she always resort to using tons of chicken stock and extra virgin olive oil to boost flavor in everything she makes?). Granted, even great cooks use legitimate shortcuts. But Ray gives it new meaning by insisting, with that very wide smile of hers, that her abbreviated cooking is a method to make good food in less time, all the time. It’s a dishonest spin, if not an outright lie. Ray deliberately passes off mediocrity as excellence. And she is happy to do so for as long as her fans are lapping it up. They’re buying her books and keeping her shows in the money, so expect her to continue with ditzy clichés like “Delish!” and “Yum-o!” and to keep getting paid to do endorsements for everything from breakfast cereal to donuts (mercifully, at least I never have to see her pose for FHM again…ugh, my eyes, my eyes).

But if Ray is merely an unscrupulous fraud, then Sandra Lee is one sick, twisted lady. Permit me to dramatize:

Why chop your onions, Sandra might ask with Stepford Wives innocence, when you can buy pre-chopped opinions at the supermarket? Gee, it must be so bloody hard to chop an onion, Sandra. Ooh, she continues, wanna know my secret for making Italian gnocchi dumplings in cheese that’s almost as good as the stuff in a fancy restaurant? Heaven forbid you use real cheese…I recommend Velveeta®! It’s tasty and sooooo cheap! Don’t forget to use pre-minced garlic that you can buy in a jar. None of that messy whole clove stuff, okay? That’s what “Semi-Homemade Cooking” is about! Way to go, Sandra, you psycho!

 

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There is something insanely obscene about cooks who champion bad shortcuts to make cheap food, which they masquerade as “gourmet-tasting” cuisine. That they have become hugely successful and influential is an indictment against American popular culture. It is proof that a great many consumers want what these celebrity gurus are offering. They aren’t selling food, really. What they are selling is convenience. And in America’s consumer culture, convenience is everything.

Celebrity gurus have defenders, who argue that the convenience offered by Ray and Lee is not unjustified in America’s city block kitchenettes. They point that many urban households don’t have time away from work to devote to making a proper meal, given the faster pace of today’s talk-and-text workplace (which is one reason why microwavable boxed dinners represent a $3 billion business in the U.S.). Yet such an argument loses validity in the face of one simple truth: Everyone can learn to cook.

Bourdain likes to point this out whenever he is asked to explain his polarized opinion of you-know-who.

“The standard I hold her (Rachael Ray) to…is Julia Child, who wasn’t a professional chef either,” he says about the most beloved cooking presenter in the history of American television (her kitchen studio is now on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History). “When you watched Julia Child, you would see her make Coq au Vin, or some classic French dish, and you’d say “Wow, that’s classic French food, that’s not so difficult. Julia can do it, I can do it. I’m gonna try that.” And it made people aspire to more.”

 

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I am suddenly reminded of Jaime Oliver, how on his first TV series he was able to teach children at his old school to cook from scratch, helping them put together an elegant menu of Chicken Breast and Mushrooms in White Wine followed by a dessert of Chocolate Cambridge Cream. And I remember that Nigella Lawson, Britain’s beautiful “domestic goddess,” has been stylishly showing global audiences for nearly a decade how to make pleasurable food that is neither too difficult nor too time-consuming. I even find myself thinking about the sometimes mad yet brilliantly easy-to-follow cooking sketches of that old drunka…er, I mean, geezer Keith Floyd, who inspired my elder sister and I as kids to try to cook on our own.

I’ll say it again. There are cooks and there are great cooks. Not everyone can be great. But everyone can strive to be better and aspire for more. And while such things as little furry blue heroes may exist only in our imaginations, they do live and breathe in the power of our ideals, inspiring us to take pride in what we do.

Yes, anyone can cook.

 

 

Re-edited (cut only) 28 May 2012

Re-edited (cut only) 13 September 2012

 

 

 

 

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