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Culinary Tail

Revisiting the gastronomic delights of ‘Ratatouille,’ a 21st-century animated classic, 10 years later

Pixar

Fittingly, the idea came to Jan Pinkava in the kitchen. During a mealtime conversation with his wife around 2000, it scurried into the filmmaker’s head. "I just suddenly thought," he told me, "‘What about a story about a rat who wants to become a chef?’"

Pinkava isn’t quite sure how he arrived at the premise of what eventually became a classic, but there it was. In a meeting at the then–Point Richmond, California, headquarters of Pixar, where he’d made television commercials since 1993, he pitched the concept to the studio’s brain trust. Pinkava remembered everyone in the room, including executives John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Pete Docter, laughing. They ultimately green-lit the project.

Ratatouille, Pinkava’s first full-length feature, was inspired. But it had a lot to overcome. The plot alone makes people squeamish. A rodent — marker of unsanitary conditions, alleged spreader of the plague, symbol of disloyalty — with culinary ambitions is, for many, too gross to embrace. Brad Lewis, who produced the movie, continues to hear from stubborn objectors. "They say, ‘I can’t stand rats,’" he said. Then he added, "Anybody that’s seen it feels entirely different."

(Pixar)
(Pixar)

After all, at its best Pixar can take the most complex, esoteric, and even terrifying story and distill it down to something that’s both charming and family-friendly. What Ratatouille had going for it was a deeply conflicted protagonist. "If you’re a talented rat cook, you are in deep trouble," Pinkava said. "Your life’s at stake in an environment where [humans are] out to kill you." For Remy, the four-legged chef in question, the act of following his dream is death-defying. "That struggle of a character," Pinkava said, "is rich dramatic territory."

Real-life chefs don’t face the same kind of danger that Remy does, but they, too, exist in a cutthroat world. Working in a restaurant can be impossibly demanding. "Ratatouille shows it as a hard thing," said James Beard Award winner Stephanie Izard, executive chef at Chicago’s Girl & the Goat, "which it is." The film is one of the best fictional portrayals of a profession that, despite its designation as the new rock ’n’ roll, is often thankless. Even so, the vivid animated opus is an educational love letter to food. Before they’re allowed to experience Anthony Bourdain, before they’re old enough to watch Top Chef, before Guy Fieri’s frosted tips tear into their consciousness, kids have Ratatouille. Who’s better equipped to introduce a 6-year-old to the flavor combination of tomme de chèvre de pays, mushroom, and rosemary than a cute cartoon rat?

A decade after its release, as Americans grow more and more obsessed with what they eat, Ratatouille still tastes fresh. In hindsight, Lewis said, "it sort of looks like it was orchestrated to coincide with that interest. Maybe that’s how art works sometimes." But in reality, the movie’s original recipe needed plenty of refinement. It had many authors and took years to finish. Here’s how it was perfected.

In pop culture, accurate depictions of life in the restaurant industry are rare. Izard enjoyed watching Friends, for example, but was always perplexed by the fact that Monica, a chef, never seemed to be working. Every time she was shown hanging out with the rest of the cast, all Izard could think was, "That’s not real." Then there’s the scene in the 2007 movie No Reservations when a chef played by Catherine Zeta-Jones takes revenge on a customer who complains that his steak is overcooked by slamming a hunk of raw meat down on his table. Izard, who recently bit her tongue when a diner sent back a fresh seafood dish for being "too fishy," called what Zeta-Jones’s character did a "dream" move. "You wish you could do that," Izard said. But it’s a fantasy.

Of course, so is a story about a rat who can cook and communicate with humans. Still, when it came to the treatment of their subject matter, the creators of Ratatouille aimed for an unusual degree of realism.

To conduct research, they traveled to Paris. In their minds, it was the only place to set the film. "The world’s center of cooking," Pinkava said. To capture the look of France’s capital, production designer Harley Jessup spent days taking photographs and sketching. Pinkava envisioned the movie’s version of the city not as an exact replica but as a slightly romanticized re-creation, like the one seen in a Disney film from his childhood: the England-set 101 Dalmatians.

"It was sort of an idealized and an affectionately caricatured London," said Pinkava, who is British. "The kind of London you want to exist. I thought maybe we should approach Paris that way for Ratatouille. We can’t represent France and French culture and Paris in a really authentic way. We’re not French. But we can give this informed representation from a position of interest and affection."

Pinkava and his colleagues visited a handful of prestigious restaurants, including Guy Savoy and Taillevent. They observed kitchens during lunch and dinner service, noting everything from the height of and space between the counters to the way chefs held their knives. Then they ate. "It was an embarrassment of crazy high-end delicious food," Lewis said. He recalled feeling full a third of the way through each extravagant multicourse menu.

(Pixar)
(Pixar)

Back home, the fact-finding mission continued. At one point, a black-leather-jacket-clad Anthony Bourdain stopped by wholesome Pixar to give a talk about food. "After about an hour and a half inside he started to sweat and said, ‘I gotta get outside,’" recalled Lewis. "It was hilarious." (This was before Bourdain quit smoking.)

Lewis and Pinkava even had a short apprenticeship at chef Thomas Keller’s world-renowned Napa Valley restaurant the French Laundry. The pair picked vegetables, sampled Russian caviar to determine freshness, mixed salt into Vermont butter, basted foie gras, and made tortellini and salmon cornets. Pinkava remembered being floored by the level of skill and coordination found in Keller’s staff.

"It’s like a surgical team dancing together," Pinkava said. "The energy and determination that it takes to do that kind of cooking at its very, very, very best was pretty impressive to witness. It was weird that they allowed bozos like us into the kitchen."

Amazingly, the animators managed to conjure mouthwatering digital cuisine. "I’ll guarantee you can’t show me anything at that point in time in computer animation — or any animation — that really looked as appetizing as our food did in that movie," said Lewis, who credited director of photography and lighting Sharon Calahan with helping render onscreen dishes that appear as delicious as anything prepared at the French Laundry.

Keller ended up making a cameo in Ratatouille as an inquisitive restaurant patron. In Remy, there are shades of the real-life chef. "The little rat was incredibly fastidious, which embodies what Keller does," chef and author Zak Pelaccio, a former saucier at the French Laundry, told Grub Street in 2007. "He’s the most incredibly focused chef I’ve known."

At Pixar, extended gestation periods were common. By 2006, Pinkava had spent six years toiling on Ratatouille. "It almost became an expectation that every movie would go through some huge crisis where everything seemed to be failing miserably," said Pinkava, whose 1997 short film Geri’s Game won an Academy Award. "And you sort of have to get through that." But this was different. The studio’s five-picture distribution deal with Disney had expired and the company was at a crossroads. Ratatouille was scheduled to be the first film released outside of the lucrative partnership. "It was all under that pressure," Pinkava said.

Yet 18 months before the movie premiered, and just a few months before Disney bought Pixar for $7.4 billion, it wasn’t close to being done. At that point, several Pixar higher-ups, including CEO Steve Jobs, reportedly phoned a vacationing Brad Bird. They wanted The Incredibles director to replace Pinkava. "They were in a spot, and I felt I could help," Bird, who a Pixar spokesperson said was in production and not available to participate in this article, told Entertainment Weekly in 2007. "And I liked the idea. I thought, This deserves to be on the theater screens." Pinkava called the situation "very complicated" and added, "It was a very big risk for the studio to take, to entrust that movie to a first-time feature director. And that was one of the reasons why that change happened."

Before taking over, Bird met with Pinkava. "I always appreciated how he took the time to sit with me and understand what my intention was with the picture," the latter said. But Pinkava understood that Bird would make the movie his own.

First, Bird suggested a major aesthetic change. Until he became director, the movie’s rodents had short tails and were designed to walk on two legs. Instead of trying to sanitize the appearance of the rats, he moved to make them look less cartoonish. Embracing the loathed animals actually humanized them. In Ratatouille, the title characters have long tails and mostly walk on all fours. Remy, whose heightened sense of smell and sophisticated palate initially lead him to become not a chef but his colony’s poison detector, is an exception. He walks on his hind legs to keep his paws clean.

Brad Bird, Patton Oswalt, and Brad Lewis (Pixar)
Brad Bird, Patton Oswalt, and Brad Lewis (Pixar)

When Bird began work on Ratatouille, Remy still needed a voice. The director has said that he heard Patton Oswalt’s stand-up routine skewering the Black Angus Steakhouse chain — "They assault you with food," Oswalt explained to the Los Angeles Times — and thought the comedian would be perfect for the role. As Bird put it to EW: "Patton is really passionate and volatile and funny, and he has a very big personality. But it sounds like it’s coming from a smaller body."

That volatility — Lewis dubbed it "charming outrage" — is on display in an early scene. After he’s forced to escape a country house via a sewer, Remy washes up in Paris. He soon makes his way into a skylight above the kitchen of the eponymous Gusteau’s, a formerly acclaimed restaurant whose reputation has slipped. From his perch, the rat notices Alfredo Linguini, the garbage boy, clumsily adding ingredients to a pot. "He’s ruining the soup!" Remy shouts. Then, with no regard for his own safety, he rushes down to save Linguini’s botched soup. That small moment of rage is a perfect illustration of Oswalt’s talents.

"It was the humanity in his voice," said fellow comedian and cast member Brad Garrett. "You forgot he was a rat. And because of our perceptions of rodents that’s what was such a huge leap for Pixar. It wasn’t mice. It wasn’t Fievel."

The deep-voiced Garrett plays the ghost of the portly chef Gusteau, whose spirit serves as Remy’s oracle. The decision to kill him off was Bird’s. During a recording session, the director approached Garrett and said, "We think Gusteau is dead." The actor thought that he’d been fired. Garrett said that his only thought was, "Can I have more time to work on the accent?"

Bird’s rewritten script also bolstered the character of Colette, the only woman at Gusteau’s. After Remy’s handiwork is mistaken for Linguini’s, the latter is promoted. Naturally, it’s the talented and driven Colette who’s forced to take Linguini under her wing.

"How many women do you see in this kitchen?" she asks the incompetent Linguini, whom Remy controls like a marionette. "Only me. Why do you think that is? Because haute cuisine is an antiquated hierarchy built upon rules written by stupid old men. Rules designed to make it impossible for women to enter this world. But still I’m here. How did this happen? Because I am the toughest cook in this kitchen."

For Toronto writer and restaurateur Jen Agg, the frustration rang true. "She’s so hurt that she’s being ignored," Agg said of Colette, who’s voiced by Janeane Garofalo. "I’ve had that feeling before." Agg appreciated the characterization but wasn’t thrilled that Colette eventually falls in love with a guy as mediocre as Linguini.

The role of the bumbling wannabe chef, who turns out to be Gusteau’s long lost son, went to Lou Romano. Haven’t heard of him? That’s because he was working in Pixar’s art department when, early in the production of Ratatouille, he laid down a scratch voice track for Linguini. Romano, an accomplished artist and animator, thought that he’d be replaced. But since Bird liked the sound of Romano’s uniquely deliberate voice, he got the part. The green voice actor said that the director helped him through the process. While recording the scene in which Ian Holm’s Napoleonic chef Skinner gets Linguini drunk in the hope that he’ll spill the secret to his success, Bird decided to ply Romano with wine. In the movie, Linguini sounds tipsy because his alter ego actually was.

Romano’s inclusion is yet another example of Pixar’s uncanny casting ability. All of Ratatouille’s supporting characters are memorable, although none more than Anton Ego. The vulture-esque figure, whom the late actor Peter O’Toole overstuffs with abrasiveness, is a perfect parody of an old-school restaurant reviewer. "That’s a critic’s nightmare of how the world sees us," New York Times food writer Pete Wells told me.

During the movie’s climactic scene, Remy attempts to impress Ego with ratatouille. Colette calls the concoction of tomato, onion, zucchini, eggplant, and red pepper, "a peasant dish," but the confident little chef still proceeds. What’s served to Ego isn’t any normal ratatouille. Producer Brad Lewis said that it’s the result of the filmmakers challenging Keller to come up with a version that could "dazzle someone." Keller’s dish, an interpretation of chef Michel Guérard’s confit byaldi, features a tomato-and-bell-pepper sauce, a vinaigrette, and thinly sliced vegetables fanned out like an accordion.

When the tough critic takes a single bite, he’s instantly transported back to his childhood. Then he drops his pen. "Ultimately that is what people want," Agg said, "which is to be pleasantly surprised by an experience." Sufficiently defanged, Ego writes a glowing review of Gusteau’s that toasts its unnamed chef. Alas, the health inspector soon closes the restaurant due to a rodent infestation. But with Ego as an investor, Colette, Linguini, and Remy open their own corner bistro — with a mini version for Remy’s pals in the ceiling.

The vast majority of high-end chefs Pinkava interviewed while developing Ratatouille aspired to have a setup like that. Few wanted to become celebrities. To most, food quality was more important than flashy presentation.

(Pixar)
(Pixar)

In the end, even Ego would’ve squeezed out a positive write-up of Ratatouille. The characters, story, setting, and visuals blended to form the kind of flavor combination that Remy raved about. Both American and French critics loved the film, which went on to make almost $621 million worldwide and win the Best Animated Feature Film Oscar.

And if there was any doubt that children would find realistic rodents cute, it was quickly erased. At the premiere, a proud but slightly embarrassed Garrett sunk his 6-foot-8-inch frame into his seat when his young daughter yelled, "Which rat are you?"

To Lewis, both Pinkava and Bird deserve credit for the success of Ratatouille. "I’m not sure one could’ve worked the same without the other," said Lewis, who’s now at DreamWorks producing How to Train Your Dragon 3. "The final movie has the initial charm and potential that I think Jan saw in the story. And then it ultimately has the master craftsmanship of Brad’s storytelling."

These days, Pinkava’s feelings toward Ratatouille are more sweet than bitter. "To get a movie made is a miracle," said Pinkava, who’s now the creative director of a virtual reality storytelling project at Google. "And to get a movie made really well is great. I’m very happy that the movie I started got well made." That the final version of the film wasn’t precisely what he’d envisioned doesn’t bother him.

Once, during a movie premiere, a director leaned over to Pinkava and said, "You know, that turned out exactly as I intended." Pinkava didn’t reveal how he responded, but said this: "Anyone who tells you that is lying."

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