Only eat the good stuff
At the cinema we go to almost every week there’s a bar that does some pretty good food and on the menu is this movie quote: “If you are what you eat, then I only want to eat the good stuff”. It’s a line from possibly my favourite food themed movie, Pixar’s Ratatouille and, as I’ve decided to make September my “Movie Month”, it’s the film that I’ll be paying culinary tribute to this week.
Impressively for a big budget Disney backed family film produced in an era in which negative American attitudes towards both the French and haute cuisine gave rise to “freedom fries”, Ratatouille has no qualms enthusing about beautifully styled, expertly made, high class French food. A chef who wants to dumb things down to produce the kind of plastic-y mass market fast food we might associate more with Pixar’s home country, and a snooty judgmental food critic represent some of the genius animation studio’s most inspired choice of villains (the decision to cast screen legend Peter O’Toole’s rich, sonorous tones as that critic, Anton Ego, is equally brilliant). On top of all that, there’s an equally impressive desire not to dumb down by having every written word, from signs to recipe books, written in French.
As the movie reaches its climactic showdown between our hero, precocious rat-chef Remy (voiced by Patton Oswald), and these two nefarious saboteurs of quality cuisine, Remy is forced to bring his greatest dish to the table. His choice, the eponymous ratatouille, raises a few eyebrows around the kitchen with the kitchen’s rôtisseur and sole female chef Colette (Janeane Garofolo) dismissing it as “peasant food”. Not the way Remy makes it, it isn’t.
It’s a testament to the quality of the film’s writing (principally from former The Simpsons, Incredibles and Iron Giant writer-director Brad Bird) that the use of ratatouille feels more organic (just like the vegetables in it) than simply an excuse to pun on the protagonist’s species. The point when a mouthful of the vegetable dish transports Ego back to his simpler childhood and his mother’s home cooking is a wonderful moment, one of the few scenes in all film that really manages to convey the power that good food can bring and a perfect demonstration of the so-called “Proust effect“. So much so, in fact, that it was rather clumsily ripped off for this cheap sausage ad a couple of years later.
The reason why Pixar’s animated food looks so appetising is simply because of the level of research that goes into every one of their films. In making Up the animators actually went hiking up mountains in the South American jungle, on Brave they spent plenty of time in wet, misty Scotland, and for the upcoming The Good Dinosaur they all travelled back in time millions of years. OK, perhaps not that one, but they did take a trip to the fossil filled Dakota badlands. Anyway, for Ratatouille this research took on perhaps the most appealing form, as the film’s production crew got to travel to Paris and dine in the fanciest restaurants. Meanwhile, back in their California home, Pixar had three Michelin star chef Thomas Keller, whose restaurant The French Laundry has spent 11 years on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List, come in to cook for them and design the dishes in the movie. No wonder it’s a cartoon that looks good enough to eat.
Anyway, Keller’s “ratatouille” recipe is actually something he calls “confit byaldi” and, thankfully for us, eager Pixar fans have been quite happy to post it online. Keller’s confit byaldi is based on a piperade of various roasted bell peppers, tomatoes, onions and garlic, that is spread on the bottom of the pan, with a spiral of thinly sliced courgette (or “zucchini” as he, and presumably the film even though it’s set in France, calls it), yellow squash and plum tomato arranged on top.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m largely ambivalent towards courgette and Professor Plum has quite a strong disliking for it (and tomato come to that), so it was always going to prove tricky to convince her of ratatouille’s merits, but if any ratatouille could do it then it was this one.
It didn’t take me long to realise, though, that the magic of montage, editing and a bit of creative licence meant that Remy’s efforts had the appearance of something quite a bit quicker than Keller’s recipe actually is. Just the piperade itself takes a good half hour of preparation and that’s before a couple of hours of baking time. In the movie Remy appears to achieve the whole process in the time that it takes Ego to sip his soup. The really time consuming element, though, turned out to be just slicing all those vegetables into narrow little discs. On screen, Remy uses a mandolin slicer (which would end up slicing my fingers as much as a courgette) that makes the process a fair bit quicker, but even so, for a species with no opposable thumbs, that is one dextrous rodent.
I don’t know how well selected Remy’s vegetables are, but they appear remarkably uniform in size. Unfortunately, that doesn’t tend to be the case with real world food, so I ended up with discs of the green courgette that were larger than the yellow ones. My ratatouille, then, was never going to be as neat as the perfectly animated one, but as I laid the discs out in the pan I was pretty happy with how similar it looked to the movie equivalent.
After two and a half hours of baking came the moment of truth. The toughest element of all was in getting the finished dish onto the plate in the fanned out tower that we see presented to Ego in the film. A little flick of the wrist is all it takes the cartoon cook, but making something quite that neat proved beyond me. Perhaps it will come with a little practice.
Nevertheless, it’s the best looking ratatouille I’ve ever made. And the taste? Having never grown up eating French peasant food I can’t say I was transported back to any idyllic childhood memories, but it was delicious. The sweet pepper and tomato piperade and balsamic vinaigrette gave it that extra boost of flavour and the texture was a pleasing mix of soft with a little crunch. As for Professor Plum, well, she’s still not convinced by courgette, but at least preferred this ratatouille to any other.
Ratatouille the movie uses food as a representation of any art form, giving the enduring message: “Anyone can cook”. It’s a fairly transparent analogy for Pixar’s own art, but nevertheless I think I’ll leave the final words on the artistry of ratatouille to Anton Ego himself.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: As a child we used to go to Dance Camp East every year (think 500 hippies in a field). Food was cooked in large groups over wood fires. Every year, usually three or four times during the week, we had ratatouille. It was wet and sweet and boring and full of courgettes (which are wet and sweet and boring) and we’d have it with pasta or rice or undercooked potatoes. On intervening days we’d have pasta sauce, made from tomatoes and peppers and courgettes. Us kids weren’t fooled.
Anyway, the moral of the story is I don’t like ratatouille. Even pretty, posh ratatouille with the skins left on the courgettes for a bit (the only bit) of texture. I mean, if I’d grown up with it I probably wouldn’t mind ratatouille so much, but it’s still not good enough to overcome years of rain-diluted shared-between-thirty-people campfire ratatouille.
(Sometimes someone would sneak some sausages in. those were the best days!)
Next week’s movie month meal will be from Julie & Julia.