Ratatouille: Everybody can cook

Jan 11, 2010 by

Anybody can cook, right? That’s the main message of the animated kids’ movie Ratatouille, out last year, and which I finally watched. That message seemed pretty sound to me at first glance.

But what the film actually means by “anybody can cook” gave me plenty of food for thought. I wish I could rewrite the film to convey instead, “everybody can cook.”

The story tells of Remy, a rat of humble origins, who becomes more than human through a superhuman genius for cooking.

Remy gets his inspiration to rise above the garbage-eating gluttony of his rat culture through exposure to humans, in particular their cookbooks, TV cooking shows, higher quality foodstuffs and discriminating tastes.

Without condemning or rejecting his rat family and friends, Remy the rat deliberately chooses to turn from the habits of his fellows. I particularly like that part: it’s a vote for Real Food. It’s an example to youngsters to open their minds to the possibilities of better choices, regardless of their own family’s habits.

Instant Ability

Fate brings our rat hero to the real-life kitchen of his TV cooking show idol, the famous Chef Gusteau, and at the same instant, our supporting hero, the too-human Alfredo Linguini, is thrust into the kitchen as well.

Even at the risk of his life, Remy can’t resist coming to the rescue of the soup that the inept Lingini is in the process of ruining. The pair end up forming a symbiotic partnership, and Remy’s uncanny ability to cook combined with Linguini’s “ability to appear human” produce dishes that amaze everyone.

Remy’s sudden cooking skill reminds me of a character in Erich Segal’s novel The Class. This foreigner who knows no English is able, through sheer natural brilliance, to literally tap into the English language. The first few words are taught to him and then all the others just begin to follow, as if from a spring whose source has been found. According to Segal, who obviously never learned a foreign language himself, new words and an entire language can materialize out of nowhere in a sufficiently fertile brain. A code-breaking word or two is sufficient to trigger the magical chain reaction.

That is not how these things happen, unfortunately. In cooking, as in language acquisition, no matter your genius, you must have exposure. There’s no way around it. If you’ve never heard the word, you don’t know it. It’s not all up there in the noodle waiting to be awakened like a dormant seed by adding a little water.

No such shortcuts exist even for the natural genius. Likewise, nobody, no matter how gifted, can improvise and create amazing food through native talent alone, no matter how vast that talent. Talent in the kitchen is more made than born. You must cook, you must work at it. You must learn, discover and experiment. The ability to do a few things doesn’t suddenly enable you to do everything else. If you’ve never smelled or tasted something, the knowledge of it is not in your head. Nobody could walk into the kitchen with as little experience and learning as Remy is represented as having and create with the assurance and results we see, right off the bat.

Remy’s giftedness also reminds me of Harry Potter, who is struck by lightning and granted all kinds of powers. Such exciting fictional giftedness requires no persistence in the face of failure. All children, most of whom are not above average, need to hear that it’s OK to fail, to not be the most talented human on the planet. That it’s normal and good to work hard to achieve. All us wanna-be cooks need to hear it, too.

You’ve Got it! Or You Don’t?

While nobody’s born with Remy’s instant abilities, neither are normal humans born with Linguini’s total lack of potential.

In spite of Linguini’s extraordinarily promising pedigree—he discovers he’s the son of the famous chef Gusteau—and in spite of being the full-time puppet of the great chef Remy for quite awhile, Linguini makes no progress at all as a cook. He remains the passive tool of the master from start to finish. He doesn’t learn a thing. His cooking skills improve not a lick, and he accepts that as his fate. He knows the score. “I can’t cook,” he tells Remy the rat, “but you can.”

What do these two extremes in ability tell kids about cooking (and maybe other disciplines)? That you either have it or you don’t.

“Not every one will be a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere,” the film tells us directly near the end. Sounds good. But so origins don’t determine one’s fate, but rather talent? That’s only half true. The problem is that neither superhuman rat nor subhuman human is realistic. Neither the extreme giftedness for cooking nor the lack thereof we see in Ratatouille is found in nature, but are purely the results of nurture. Both are, in fact, acquired through experience—good or bad.

I’ve heard that even the good is the enemy of the best, so this half-truth is the enemy of the full truth. A better message would be that becoming a great artist depends even more on hard work and focus than on native talent.

And because all of us fall between the two extremes of our Ratatouille heroes, the best message, the wonderful truth the movie shortchanges kids on, is that any reasonably normal human can be and should be a good cook, a successful and contented one.

Anybody or Everybody?

This movie may open a few children’s minds to the excitement of cooking as a profession or even inspire that small number of kids destined to become great chefs. If that’s all the inspiration these kiddos get, though, they will probably give up the first time they try to cook something in their kitchens at home. They’ll figure that, like Linguini, they just don’t make the cut; they haven’t got it.

Would it not do more good to tell the vast majority that they can cook than to attempt to speak to the elite few from humble origins who are destined to become extraordinary chefs?

Happily, since we all gotta eat, cooking is not an ability for the few and the gifted. All normal humans truly can cook and enjoy it, regardless of “talent.” I’d even venture to say all humans are born wanting to cook to some degree. It’s a desire to be cultivated and nurtured. Cooking is one of the most universally doable skills, more than drawing, writing, making music, acting or playing sports.

All it takes to be a “good cook” is good recipes. Anybody can cook a great many delicious dishes, with no skills whatsoever beyond cutting, stirring and measuring. At the same time, it’s something you can get better at your whole life. Cooking will reward anyone to the extent to he or she cares to invest in it.

Few of us have the patience or interest to become a truly great chef. I know I don’t. I’m quite happy to cook a variety of decent food, pretty consistently, sometimes some really simple stuff, but still satisfying when we’re hungry. I make some pretty delicious dishes at times. Even amazing, if I do say so myself. That’s a pretty great thing, I think.

The Remaking of Ratatouille

The story would have been better (if less marketable), if it had shown Remy more focused than talented. Hard at work, he reads Gusteau’s cookbook a great deal (in the movie he denies reading it much, and it was clearly a risky business for him) and tastes all kinds of ingredients. He would watch dozens of cooking shows, well beyond those few inspirational moments we see with Gusteau. We would see him experimenting with cooking way beyond one lightning-struck mushroom on the rooftop, with a blend of disaster and triumph.

We would witness his pleasure in meeting and combining new flavors. We would share his excitement the first time he managed to make ratatouille (a truly fabulous dish that anybody can make) or some other simple delight.

Remy the rat would gradually begin to create his own fabulous recipes based on his vast experience. We’d see how he’d increasingly challenge himself, and how much his rat family would come to appreciate the new way of eating (after a few tragicomical false starts).

He would spend weeks observing the goings-on in Gusteau’s gourmet kitchen, then start sneaking in there at night and creating little surprises for the kitchen staff, who would give instructive responses. They would increasingly marvel and wonder  who the ambitious and inspired mystery chef could be.

As for Linguini, he would start being less involuntary before the first week passed of his service as Remy’s robotic sous-chef. He would be pleased to find he could do a good bit without the rat’s promptings. He would become an active and valued cooking partner. He’d start having his own opinions about how things should be done, and discover they were sound. He would definitely catch the genuine excitement of being an active part of creating that marvelous food. He would rescue Remy from some fatal cooking error, though his own growing knowledge and abilities in the kitchen.

Instead of being one of the majority of cooking can-nots in the film’s fictional cooking world, our Linguini would be one of the real-world majority of can-dos. In my new version of Ratatouille, Linguini is the one who would discover that he is an anybody who can cook.

Related posts:

How to relieve stress by cooking dinner

What if you don’t like to cook?

French kids don’t get fat, but do they cook?

Kids in the kitchen: Cooking as its own reward

Why a child’s place is in the kitchen: Relating to and through food

This post was featured on Food Renegade’s Fight Back Friday on May 14, 2010.

Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 11 January 2010 / all rights reserved