The Lock Down Log: Chef, Ratatouille, and the Critic

John Leguizamo, Sofía Vergara, Jon Favreau, and Emjay Anthony in Chef (2014)
A shot from Chef (2014); Source: IMDB

Last Saturday’s breezy summer afternoon set a perfect mood for a movie. I watched Chef (2014) – available on Prime (India). It was one of the few food centered movies that I hadn’t watched until then. I had watched Babette’s Feast (1987), Big Night (1996), Tampopo (1985), Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), Julie and Julia (2009), The Hundred Foot Journey (2014), Like Water for Chocolate (1992) and Ratatouille (2007).

While food is a big part of Chef, I’d never put it in the same space as Tampopo, Eat Drink Man Woman or Big Night, whose characterization of food and cooking is much deeper and nuanced. Chef is a perfectly enjoyable film with delectable cooking scenes, a road trip on a food truck, a loyal friendship, and great father-son scenes. Some of my most cherished moments in the film are the father son moments like when Percy, the son, helps Casper, the chef and the father in the film, set up a Twitter account and when Casper wants Percy to experience some of the best food he’s had – Andouille sausage, Beignets, and Cuban sandwiches.

But there is something else that Chef reminded me about. It the was its close similarities with Ratatouille and a discussion on the ‘role of a critic‘ on the Ratatouille episode of This Movie Changed Me podcast with New York Times’ chief film critic, A.O.Scott.

The critic plays an important part in Chef. In fact, what sets off the story in Chef is when the renowned food critic, Ramesy, in his review of his dinner at the restaurant Casper works in, characterizes Casper’s food as “insecure and unimaginative…a needy aunt that gives you $5 every time you see her in the hopes that you’ll like her.”

This makes Casper furious and he hits back at Ramesy. The artist questions the critic:

What do you do? You sit and you eat and you vomit those words back. To make people laugh. You know how hard I work for this shit? Do you know how hard my whole staff works? It fucking hurts when you write that shit!

A.O. Scott, a critic himself, provides an answer to the above in the podcast, as he talks about Anton Ego’s character in Ratatouille:

There’s often a feeling that what we do and what we’re trying to do is just not really — not only not appreciated, but also, just fundamentally not — people just don’t get it.

And I think that the movie ends up being an appreciation and a defense of what Ego does; what criticism is; why it’s important to the arts and to artists,

And then he elaborates on the role of the critic:

And the customers who keep going in and eating this lousy food are, in a way, seduced by this reputation and are missing what’s really going on and have maybe lost sight of the real possibilities of quality and innovation and creativity that still exists in cooking. And it’s (Anton) Ego’s job, it’s the critic’s job, to be the radar that detects those things. And I take that to mean anything that comes along that is exciting, challenging — that fulfills some of the possibilities of creativity; of human or, for that matter, of rodent creativity. The job of critics is to discover that and to be able to make a case for it, for the public.

The two films also have a similarity in the antagonists – Skinner, who runs Gusteau’s retaurant, in Ratatouile and Revis, owner of the restaurant where Casper worked, in Chef. Both characters compromise art and creativity in pursuit of commercial success. Revis forces Casper to serve the crowd pleasing favorites – Caviar Egg, scallop, french onion soup, chocolate lava cake (which eventually led to the scathing review by Ramsey). Skinner launches frozen food products like ‘Gusteau’s Microwave Burritos‘ and ‘Gusteau’s French Pizza‘ (admonished by Anton Ego) to capitalize on Gusteau’s reputation.

In fact, the similarities between the two films go further (spoiler alert). Both have a similar thread in their closing acts: the critic funds and partners the setting up of restaurants with the chefs (artists).

Well, the next time your friends comment on your snobbishness with respect to films or music, you know what to say.

Good night!