Ahead of the release of Lightyear, The Ringer is hosting Pixar Week—a celebration of the toys, rats, clown fish, and more that helped define one of the greatest studios of the 21st century. At the heart of the occasion is the Best Pixar Character Bracket, a cutthroat tournament to determine the most iconic figure of them all. Check back throughout the week to vote for your favorite characters and read a selection of stories that spotlight some of Pixar’s finest moments. To infinity … and beyond!
There is nothing subtle about Anton Ego, beginning—of course—with his name. The fearsome food critic stalks the margins of Ratatouille, his ghoulish shadow darkening the door at Gusteau’s, the film’s central restaurant, even when the writer himself can’t be bothered to visit. (Ego insists that a review in which he invoked Chef Boyardee was his “last word” on the establishment.) Then there is his coffin-shaped office. There’s the joy he seems to derive from petrifying staff members of Parisian eateries. And worst of all for the film’s main character, a rat named Remy with dreams of becoming a chef, there’s the implication that Ego’s pan of Gusteau’s cost the restaurant its vaunted five-star rating—a fall from grace that presaged the eponymous, once-celebrated resident chef, Auguste Gusteau, perishing of a broken heart.
In one scene, Ego—whose nickname is the Grim Eater—tells a nervous server that he would like some perspective: “fresh, clear, well-seasoned perspective.” “Fresh out, I take it?” he hisses at the server’s confusion. “Since you are all out of perspective and no one else seems to have it in this bloody town, I’ll make you a deal: You provide the food, I’ll provide the perspective, which would go nicely with a bottle of Cheval Blanc 1947.”
Ego is a menace—and one of the most iconic characters in Pixar’s catalog. He’s also a figure whose shadow looms across the work of food writers and critics to this day. “[He] is probably a caricature of how chefs see critics—the judge and executioner,” says Pete Wells, the restaurant critic for The New York Times. “It’s just exaggerated—extremely exaggerated.”
Helen Rosner, The New Yorker’s food correspondent, shares that sentiment, but acknowledges that there is at least some truth to Ego’s depiction. “The stereotype of the sneering critic on a power trip is really pervasive,” Rosner says. “Ego’s villainy—the way he takes pleasure in a sneering takedown—is definitely something that was real and pervasive in restaurant criticism.”
In the real world, food critics do a great deal more than simply wield a poison pen, cutting down beloved cooks and kitchens at will. But bad reviews do come with the territory, and just as Ego has become a fan-favorite Pixar villain, critics sometimes find that pans attract an audience of giddy readers.
“Readers seem to love reading negative reviews a lot more than I love writing them,” Wells says. “I tend to save them for restaurants that a lot of people care about. I don’t tend to write pans of places nobody’s heard of. But once I decide to do it, I try to make it fun for the reader. Maybe that’s sick. Some people say they feel guilty about laughing. But a negative review with no laughs at all is a very dismal thing.”
A case in point: Wells’s 2012 review of Guy Fieri’s just-opened outpost in Times Square, which he structured as 50 consecutive questions, ranging from “When you have a second, Mr. Fieri, would you see what happened to the black bean and roasted squash soup we ordered?” to “Is this how you roll in Flavor Town?” Apparently it was not: The restaurant closed in 2017. “I remember having to walk away from my computer,” Wells said of the aftermath of that review. “It was like a pinball machine—everything was lighting up.”
“I’ve always believed one should exhibit the same care when writing a so-called positive review as a negative review,” says Ryan Sutton, who serves as the chief New York restaurant critic at Eater. “To oversimplify things a bit: You stand to endanger the livelihoods of hardworking staffers with any negative review, but with a poorly conceived positive write-up, however, you’re hurting folks too, be it the prospective consumer with scarce disposable income and limited stomach space, or the people working at better venues that you should’ve been highlighting.”
But while invoking Chef Boyardee might be excessive, Sutton, who also teaches food criticism at CUNY’s graduate school of journalism, says that a sharp review serves a purpose. “When writing a pan, hopefully the critic has a larger point in mind—What does it mean that this restaurant is borrowing from another culture? What does it mean that there’s a known abuser at the helm of the venue?—rather than it being an effort in ‘I don’t like this,’ because for that, the reader can simply go to Yelp.”
Sutton has thought a lot about Ego’s legacy in culinary circles. Last October, he published an essay on the character’s enduring relevance and the ways in which the food world has changed since Ratatouille hit theaters in 2007. The late aughts, he wrote, were dominated by “a porky and meaty style of gastronomy” with anointed “Gods of Food” leading their kitchens and little to no attention afforded the women and men actually creating those celebrated dishes.
While Ego is remembered chiefly as a vicious vector of spite, Sutton believes the character was ahead of his time in another respect. In Ratatouille’s final act, Ego finally revisits Gusteau’s, where he is served Remy’s titular ratatouille. (In fact, it was the chef Thomas Keller’s, and not ratatouille at all but a vegetable byaldi.) Ego is enamored from the first bite, as the dish transports him to his childhood; he sops up the last of the sauce with his fingers while pledging to wait all night to meet the dish’s creator and offer his compliments. “The fact that Ego insists on meeting the individual cook behind the ratatouille dish also speaks to a modern trend in food journalism to publish the names of less high-profile folks working under a marquee chef,” Sutton says.
In the current landscape, few individual food critics hold the level of sway Ego does in the movie, as curious would-be diners have many more places to turn for input. “There’s absolutely been a massive democratization of restaurant culture,” Rosner says. “It used to be that newspapers, magazines, and travel guidebooks were the primary way that anyone even heard of a restaurant in the first place, let alone decided whether to eat there.” That’s not only moved the industry away from the Ego critic archetype; it’s changed the very nature of food criticism, with Rosner citing a recent embrace of “curiosity and celebration.”
“The San Francisco Chronicle is a great example of a publication where there’s been a sea change in the approach to reviewing restaurants,” she says. “The previous critic had been in his seat for decades, had cozy relationships with lots of old-school power players, and didn’t really seem interested in challenging—or even expanding—any aspect of the city’s culinary status quo. As soon as Soleil Ho came on board [in 2019], the entire column basically hurtled itself out of the 1980s and into present day: Columns that are curious, conversational, interested in food and food business as more than just what’s on the plate. The reviews definitely still serve the readers, and tell them where to eat, but they also illuminate the city’s food scene and explore interesting, sometimes very difficult questions.”
Ratatouille culminates with Ego asking his own series of difficult questions. After Remy’s dish prompts him to experience a come-to-Dieu moment, he drops his wicked guise and pens a review that doubles as a mea culpa. “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy,” Ego writes. “We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”
It is Ego’s insistence upon meeting the chef that leads to his discovery of Remy’s, er, unconventional taxonomy. Indeed, as Ego flings the kitchen’s doors open, he finds the dish he enjoyed so much was prepared by dozens—hundreds?—of Remy’s rat brethren, who submitted to a spin through an industrial cleaner before so much as touching a zucchini. While the health department swiftly shuts down Gusteau’s, Ego takes the surprise in stride and lauds Remy and Co.’s unlikely ability. “Last night, I experienced something new: an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source,” Ego’s review continues, as he at last embraces the Gusteau mantra that anyone can cook. “To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core.”
It’s little secret that chefs have long admired Ratatouille’s depiction of the joys of food and the work of making it; Anthony Bourdain, who had a minor consultation role early in the film’s development, declared it “quite simply the best food movie ever made.” Wells’s predecessor as the Times’s restaurant critic, Frank Bruni, admired it for similar reasons, writing upon its release that he had been “struck … by the approving, respectful portrait the movie painted of food lovers in general.” But despite critics voicing their admiration for the film and giving their thoughts on their cartoon counterpart, one question remains unanswered: If a real rat snuck into the toque of a young kitchen hand and whipped up a delicious meal, would they be as open-minded about its culinary work as Ego was?
“It would be an honor to eat a meal prepared by an army of meticulously clean superintelligent anthropomorphic rats,” Rosner says.
Echoes Wells: “As a critic, reviewing a restaurant run by very clean rats—smart goes without saying; all rats are scarily smart—would be a dream. Who wouldn’t want to read that? But as a human, as a member of our species, I’d really worry that if rats are allowed to run restaurants it might tip the balance of power in favor of rats permanently. For one thing, they’d put all the human chefs out of business by getting all their ingredients out of the garbage. They’d have no food costs! No human can compete with that.”