If you are a fan of cooking, I recommend the new Disney/Pixar cartoon Ratatouille.
No, I am not going to start reviewing films here. But I should mention this little cartoon because it is such a remarkable film about the joy of food, learning how to cook, the formal roles and hierarchy of a traditional French restaurant kitchen, and modern trends in our food culture.
The first major American film about cooking and restaurants
First, it is remarkable that a major studio even released a movie about cooking and restaurants. Yes, there have been some small independent and foreign films about cooking: Big Night, Like Water for Chocolate, Eat Drink Man Woman, Babette's Feast, What's Cooking. One major American film, Chocolat, remade a French film that dealt with making candy. But Ratatouille is the only major release I know that focuses on chefs and cooking.
Ratatouille reflects the rise of television cooking shows and the celebrity chef. The movie begins with the main character -- who happens to be a rat -- learning to cook by watching a TV cooking show. The TV chef's cookbook, "Anyone can cook," has an almost Biblical imporance. It is reminiscent of Julia Child. It also reflects the modern wave of home cooking -- Food Network, Williams Sonoma, Sur La Table, and so many bestselling cookbooks for the home chef.
Ratatouille also deals with a celebrity chef whose name and image are used to sell mass-produced frozen foods, including burritos and corn dogs. Think Wolfgang Puck.
Starting a cuilinary debate
The second remarkable aspect of Ratatouille is that it introduces important issues in contemporary restaurant cooking. It asks big questions, such as:
-Is food is just fuel for the body, or is it art for the mind?
-Does a great chef need formal training or can anyone be a chef?
-Is it more important to follow the traditional recipe or experiment?
-Does a famous chef give up integrity by marketing fast frozen foods?
-Should the head chef always get the public credit for great dishes in a restaurant?
-What is more important: fame and Michelin stars, or making great food?
Of course, keep in mind that Ratatouille is just a Disney cartoon. It cannot afford to address these issues in too much depth. And the answers it gives are a little too pat. But the fact that a popular movie even raises these issues is ground breaking.
The other remarkable accomplishment of Ratatouille is how the film uses animation to visualize the sensation of taste. When different characters eat a dish, the character appears in front of a black backdrop and different colors, representing each distinct flavor, begin to swirl around the character's image as they describe the flavors. It is some of the most remarkably artistic animation since Fantasia. It is perhaps the best visual representation of the sensation of tasting that I have seen in any film.
If I were a film critic, I might talk about character development, the amazing animation, and the humor that made me and my daughter laugh out loud. But I know less about film than I know about food.
I enjoyed Ratatouille mostly for the food.