Nobody serves up a metaphor for finding one’s self like a French chef

Nobody serves up a metaphor for finding one’s self like a French chef

Even fictional people have to eat. Sometimes food reveals what we should know about a character, sometimes it’s a pleasant pause in the action, sometimes it’s a crucial staging platform for exposition, and sometimes it's something that an American is never going to pronounce properly no matter how hard he or she tries. Food Fiction is an ongoing feature that looks at some of the most memorable foods in the history of storytelling.

Ah, Paris. It’s maybe the only city in the world for which that “Ah” is standard and even expected. Stereotypically haughty and beauty-loving, the city’s residents’ legendary ability to appreciate sensory delight sets up a challenge some people apparently can’t resist, from Picasso and all those expatriate authors in the ’20s to (presumably) the suitors of Catherine Deneuve.

In the kitchen, Parisians believe they’ve set the bar almost unreachably high. “Although each of the world’s countries would like to dispute this fact, we French know the truth; the best food in the World is made in France. [And] the best food in France is made in Paris,” says the “oui oui”-accented announcer of a fake documentary in the opening of Pixar’s Ratatouille.

Can you learn to cook to the satisfaction of a discerning French chef? Pop culture’s answer is, “Only if you’re preternaturally gifted or extremely determined.”

Remy the rat in Ratatouille is the former. He’s a natural—his brilliance comes from his love of smells, instinct for flavor combinations, and innate understanding of the nuances of preparation.

Julia Child, as depicted in Julie & Julia, is thrilled and somewhat surprised by her sudden romance with French cooking, and excels in the kitchen by being fierce, funny, and undeterred by the male hierarchy of Le Cordon Bleu.

Both Remy and Julia have found their life’s calling as well as a challenge to overcome: one’s a rat in a world of men, one’s a woman in a world of men who are married to women of low ambition.

And thus, almost immediately, perhaps inevitably, the food and its preparation in these films turns into a metaphor for the thrill of creativity and personal exploration, and the necessity of stubbornly trusting that little interior voice in spite of obstacles. That’s not just soup that Remy’s making, it’s his calling, his art; it’s not just buttery “sole meunière” that Julia Child samples in Normandy, it’s a transformative revelation on a plate.

Remy’s and Julia’s quests to master French cooking are each a little lesson on the reward of pursuing a talent despite the world’s attempt to force dull conformity on us all.

Pursuit of personal fulfillment is what mixes Julie of Julie & Julia into Julia’s story. New Yorker Julie Powell was feeling the awful emotional weight of the post-9/11 world in her government job, and a lingering urge to be a writer. So she gave herself a writing assignment. She gained a degree of Internet fame by attempting to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s 1961 book for “the servantless American cook,” Mastering The Art Of French Cooking, then blogging about it.

She turned the blog into a “pleasant enough” book. The movie adaptation, based on a blend of Child’s autobiographical My Life In France and Powell’s memoir, got middling-to-meh reviews.

One problem with the movie version is that Meryl Streep and director Nora Ephron have summoned a characterization of Julia Child and her relationship with her husband (Stanley Tucci) that becomes one of the greatest depictions of a loving middle-aged couple ever: They’re so playful, compatible, and casually in love with each other, it’s a disappointment every time the “Julie storyline” yanks us out of 1950s.

“What should I do,” says Julia Child to her ambassador husband, sitting in a restaurant, unwilling to merely bide time in Paris while the couple is posted there. “Shouldn’t I find something to do? Wives don’t do anything here. That’s not me, that’s not me.”

After they’ve discussed and dismissed hat making, the ambassador smilingly asks her what she likes to do. Child replies—and Streep makes us realize that there’s a rhythm to this conversation because her reply comes approximately a half-beat earlier than we expect it—“Eat!” They laugh about it. “And you’re good at it, look at you!” says her husband, chuckling. Child agrees, “I am good at it! I’m growing in front of you.”

It’s ridiculously charming. And that perfectly executed conversational half-beat makes a viewer aware of the cake-ish layers at work here: In a movie about two women attempting to excel at cooking French food, each searching in her way for meaning and an outlet for self-expression, we are watching artists portraying artists. And the Julie half of the movie just can’t keep up: Poor Amy Adams, as likable as she is, shouldn’t be asked to “go up against” Streep.

“Bonjour!” Streep warbles; she laughs and springs out at people and leans way over—even though the actress herself is 5 foot 6, the film cleverly makes her dominant in every scene, both in personality and stature. She’s competitive, chopping onions as fast as she can to beat the male students on either side of her and failing to hold back an effervescent little “Tah dah!” of victory when she finishes first. She can’t contain herself, even as the movie’s structure does its best to hold her back. This may or may not be what Julia Child was actually like, but it sure is a pleasure to watch Meryl Streep do her thing.

And the cooking metaphor just continues to unfold. Watching artists making art isn’t that different from watching cooks making dinner—but it can get kind of messy. Meryl Streep admits to being “opinionated” on movie sets, and leaves it to us to decide if that means more than it says. Perhaps it’s best just to savor the final product. When a movie’s in the theater and its soundtrack and final color are all done, it’s not that different from the plating of a dinner as it leaves the kitchen. All the tricky techniques and potential compromises and patched-over mistakes and clashes between bean counters and visionaries happened out of sight, in the edit room. We’re invited to enjoy what we’re shown as if it’s the way the makers intended us to see it—presented perfectly.

But then we start peering into the background, trying to see what’s going on, trying to understand the process, the same way Julia just has to know more about cooking like the French.

For the most part, we probably don’t want to know the reality of how the stuff we enjoy gets made. But we’re curious, and practically every modern DVD has a little behind-the-scenes piece. Those famous names on their junkets always have a couple making-of anecdotes ready for entertainment reporters. Yet do we really want to know? What if it’s a bunch of rats doing the cooking?

That sub-surface light scattering on the fruits and vegetables? The animation of water during the rainstorm? That Vertigo-ish Hitchcockian pullback to the food critic’s childhood plate of ratatouille? That’s what we came for: Who really wants to know the tedium of the true technical aspects required to get everything just perfect? It’s perfect. That’s all we need to know.  

In fact, the less we know about the Ratatoille behind-the-scenes story, probably, the better: Its original director, Jan Pinkava, came up with the original concept of the movie. Brad Bird was asked to take over. Who knows what really happened there? It’s in no one’s interest to poke at it. Pinkava shouldn’t have to compete publicly with “The” Brad Bird.

You can hardly come up with a dreamier team than The Incredibles’ Bird and the loyal subjects of the kingdom of John Lasseter, chief creative officer of Pixar—note that Ratatouille came out before the studio released anything less than a critically beloved film (perhaps A Bug’s Life is not quite as amazing as the others, but it’s still awfully good and suffers mainly from comparison). Bird enjoys terrific reviews for almost anything he does. Blend in the voices of Patton Oswalt as Remy, Peter O’Toole as a scary food critic, and Janeane Garofalo as a love interest—among other great actors—then sit back, raise your expectations, and let the animators show off a little with inventive action sequences as the technical team brings a new level of beauty and detail to everything from rat hair to Paris at night.

The only question is does the “cooking as an emblem for answering the call when you realize what you should be doing with your life” metaphor wear thin? Maybe? At what point? When do we realize that all the technique, all the clever action, all the acting and scripting and great little moments are nothing more than the peanut butter in which the pill of a lecture has been hidden? “Do not suppress your creative urges! Do not be afraid of new ideas! Be true to yourself!” These are the themes of lots of children’s books and movies. But if neither Bird nor Pixar has suffered much at the hands of the critics, why is this speech from Anton Ego the moment the entire film seems to be leading up to?

It’s a great speech. But it’s as if tackling the somewhat thinky-sounding topic of “the predestiny of this rat chef is a metaphor for a true artist” and the challenge, then, of delivering a movie exciting and engaging enough for all ages (which was apparently too complicated and messy for the man who came up with the original idea) tempted Bird and Lasseter to build in a little trap for every potentially negative reviewer. If you aren’t open to championing the new—and just look at that wet rat hair; that’s as new as it gets—you might secretly be an old, emotionally frozen-over villain.

An extra feature on the Ratatouille DVD is a making-of video that shows how Bird interned at a world-renowned restaurant called The French Laundry in Napa Valley, and asked its head chef, Thomas Keller, to prepare a version of the titular dish that might impress a critic such as Anton Ego. The video also shows Bird at work in the warrens of Pixar, like a head chef himself, coaching and exhorting and encouraging and waiting until he sees something exactly the way he wants it, then tweaking it some more. It’s always interesting to see how things are made—but after watching this peek into the kitchens, both literal and figurative, some of the magic of the film is reduced. That happens with most making-of videos, to some extent, but this one in particular makes the process seem tense; is there not a little touchiness and a feeling of “getting a chance to give his side” in Bird’s description of his perfectionism? Both of these movies would rush to his defense, as anybody should—we like what he makes, and (within reason) we should honor what it requires for him to make it. Bird certainly doesn’t seem out of line or tyrannical. But watching the making-of DVD doesn’t make the end result, the movie itself, more fun to watch.

Still, Anton Ego wants to meet the chef. The urge to know the people who make what we love is too strong for our own good, sometimes.

So The Rat In The Hat and She Who Possessed The Courage Of Her Convictions have prepared a very, almost too-clear lesson: Honor your urge to make something—even if (like Julie Powell or Brad Bird) your urge is to make something about the urge to make something. Just be ready for anything when you peek through the little round windows in the swinging kitchen doors to see behind the scenes. What you find back there might make your appétit slightly less bon.


UPCOMING:
It Must Be Jelly ’Cause Jam Don’t Shake Like That

Charlie Hopper writes about songwriting for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, blogs about restaurants at SellingEating.com, and tweets @CharlieHopper

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