Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Ratatouille of the Heart

Last night, I watched Ratatouille again. It's a charming animated film. For me, it's particularly amusing to see the devilish portrayal of Ego, the restaurant critic, since I was one for twelve years. Not like him, I hope, but that's for others to decide.

The story about the rat who is a master chef, and the boy who becomes his kitchen tool, is more convincing with its art work and atmosphere of the Paris culinary world than with the plot, which is fragmentary in a way so common among contemporary movies. But who cares, when there's so much to enjoy in how the story is told?

Ego is the dark and devilish restaurant critic, making any kitchen staff panic, and enjoying it. He is reformed at the end of the movie, when he finally gets a taste of his dearest childhood culinary memory, though. His viciousness was the despair of never finding that joy before.

I can relate to that. I was a restaurant critic for twelve years, secretly tasting meals that span from orgiastic top to repulsive bottom. Nothing made me happier than finding an unexpected gem, and nothing was as disappointing as finding the dishes of a fine restaurant bland.

One can't be a critic without being emotionally involved in the art form examined. I wanted to be overwhelmed, and several times I was. Other times, I was fed up already after the starter – actually, in a few cases I lost hope already at the amuse-bouche, the little taster that exclusive restaurants begin with as a kind of welcoming gesture.

But the critic who seeks disappointment, in order to feast on vicious writing afterward, has little compassion for the art in question. Still, it's far too common. Ego (his name hardly chosen by chance) mentions it in the movie, explaining that it's a kind of writing equally enjoyed by the writers and many of their readers. But it's the easy way out and it has nothing to do with taking the job seriously. It's hardly more than a bad joke.

In the movie, Ego is well-known and announces his arrivals to restaurants as if he were a monarch visiting his subjects. That's rarely the case among restaurant critics. I was as secret as a spy. Even at my newspaper, my identity was known only to a few. The hardest thing about the job was to guard that secret.

It was necessary. You are treated so differently when the restaurant regards you as important, for one or other reason. The former New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl wrote a book about her efforts to remain anonymous by putting on disguises – and how much better she was treated when she did not. Here's that book on Amazon: Garlic and Sapphires.

I also wrote a book about my experiences as a restaurant critic, but unfortunately it's only published in Swedish: Bong – tolv år som hemlig krogrecensent.

It's a fascinating job, although I wasn't always happy about it during my twelve years. The delights are many, but still in a minority compared to the disappointments. Well, after a number of dinners, you're bound to increase your demands – especially when you go to restaurants that are supposed to deliver fine dining.

I made sure to cover the whole spectrum, contrary to how most critics pick. Usually, they focus only on exclusive and fancy restaurants, but I also made many visits to simpler places. I even reviewed the Ikea restaurant and McDonalds. That was fun to do.

These two didn't make my tongue dance, but I was often pleasantly surprised by what budget restaurants could do, in spite of their humble circumstances. What they lacked in knowledge and resources, they compensated with passion. And the finest restaurants often suffered from the opposite – a lack of genuine care, with technology instead of passion as the driving force in the kitchen.

That's also Ego's revelation at the end of the movie. He finds the meal emotional instead of technical, so his experience is subjective instead of objective, involved instead of distanced. That's the kind of experience a critic should always search for, and try to put into writing.

Here's the film on DVD at Amazon


  1. Kommenterar på svenska eftersom skriva på engelska inte direkt är min grej. Med en egen restaurang bakgrund både vad gäller snabbmat och lite bättre ställen så ligger detta också lite mer varmt om hjärtat. Det som är intressantare med enklare ställen är att de använder sig av billigare råvaror som vi alla är vana vid dagligen och om de dessutom kan få det till att bli extra välsmakande, så innebär detta också en eve. påverkan på ens egen dagliga matlagning. Vad det gäller lite mera exklusivare ställen så handlar det ofta om dyrare råvaror som man inte är lika van vid dagligen och därför kan man mer uppskatta detta, fastän det inte nödvändigtvis behöver vara mer själ nedlagt vid matlagning.
    Fortfarande intressanta ämnen och bra inlägg, men trist att engelsmännen inte är lika bra på att kommentera.

  2. Stefan, many thanks for your comment. True, exclusive ingredients don't necessarily mean a greater restaurant experience. It does indeed depend mostly on the love and devotion of the kitchen. No ingredient is more important.

  3. I have now have enjoyed Ratatouille twice. The second time, I looked more at the technical accuracies. I work for an organization that has an award winning restaurant and indeed everything in the movie was in place in the kitchen.

    I have also found the recipe that they used in the movie as it is not typical of the provencal ones usually served.

    When I have tried the recipe, I will post on this thread again.

  4. The Stork, I look very much forward to your report. Me too, I was impressed by the authenticity of the restaurant kitchen scenery and details. I bet there were professionals from the field involved in the script and the production.