Because of the elitism that restaurant culture seems to be dripping with, it came to me as a pleasant surprise that most chefs I work with have seen (and even love) the movie Ratatouille. I, personally, have been a fan since the first time I sat through its full two hours of charmingly true-to-life cooking sequences and kitchen scenes. It’s easily my favorite movie- probably of all time.
There’s no shortage of delightful features in this film- with its dreamy rendition of a twinkling Paris nightscape, eerily accurate animations of baguette crumbs and chunks of Tomme, and deeply Heraclitean credo- but it is the transformation of the story’s villain that makes it remarkable to so many.
How can we forget the way Ego is introduced to us in a coffin-shaped room, vampiric and pale, with a hissing voice drenched with cynicism? Will we ever get over the creepy dream sequence where he orders Linguini’s “heart, roasted on a spit”?!
And yet, when Ego is served Remy’s ratatouille (spoiler alert), we literally watch him dissolve into a child, flashing back to a sunny afternoon in the French countryside: Ego appears in the kitchen doorway as with a broken bike, a skinned knee, and a quivering lip. We pan over to see a woman, presumably his mother, who knows exactly how to ease his pain: food.
Now sitting at the table, young Ego is presented with a warm, steaming dish of traditional ratatouille. He smiles. And suddenly, all is right with the world again.
Flash forward to the present, where Ego has now finished his first bite of the fancified food of his childhood. His pen slips from his hand in slow motion to the floor, his eyes softening and eyebrows raising in an innocent glee- he can’t help it! The profound hurt that had previously turned him into a bitter, resentful old man is now being swallowed with forkfulls of ratatouille he is shoveling into his mouth. He feels comforted, seen, and at ease. It’s obvious.
Our villain is defeated. Not with weapons, magic, or righteousness- but with the impossibly potent power of nostalgia. I had been searching for the dish that would melt my ice cold, vampire Ego-heart ever since.
I thought I hated red sauce. I wouldn’t buy it, nor would I make it. I just wouldn’t.
If there was pasta on my plate, some olive oil, salt, and parmagiano would do just fine. Pizza? You could give it to me white. I’d tell you to keep your lasagna, your ziti, and your eggplant parm. As a matter of fact, I’d tell ya to keep your freaking ratatouille!
I just didn’t want it. I didn’t want the offensive acidity at the front of the bite that pulled its way back into my throat on the swallow, or the burn in the corner of my lips after the meal was over. I didn’t want the putrid chemical smell of whatever preserved and manufactured flavor they try to recreate in jars in the supermarket.
It was only, and I mean only my love and fascination with gastronomy that compelled me to give it another shot once or twice a year- just to see if anything had changed.
Pizza’s saving grace was the sweetness of its sauce. I’d endure a classic slice or two, if not by dipping it in ranch dressing (yes, acknowledged, it’s the worst thing I do with food). Spaghetti was tolerable if the marinara had been homemade, and accompanied by some buttery garlic bread to contrast its edginess.
But hardly any of these meals changed my opinion of tomato sauce. That was, until recently, at my friends’ wedding where stuffed shells were being served… smothered with red sauce.
Unexpectedly, I found myself joyfully cutting into its bulbous pieces of al dente pasta curling around forkfuls of seasoned ricotta. They were the perfect balance of savory, salty and acidic- just delicious.
They also happened to be my twin sister’s favorite childhood dinner.
When we were in kindergarten, she had a braid so long it reached the back of her thighs. She also had this high pitched giggle that erupted at the most inappropriate times. She was always laughing, and always trying to hold my hand (when all I wanted to do was roughhouse).
We used to play outside- often in the dirt. We found bugs and imagined we were driving cars in our neighbor Bethany’s yard on our bikes. Sticky sap covered our fingers from climbing trees as we sat around on the dirt floor of a dilapidated shed, writing rules for our fifth new “club” on a piece of printer paper.
She slept on the top bunk for almost a decade because I bullied her into it.
Our childhood was inherently sweet. Even when the sky was falling according to the grownups around us, our hopefulness and imagination won out against the monsters of the world. And without anybody giving us a good reason to do so, we’d persevered towards love- every time.
That’s just what kids do.
We’d assumed bad guys were just good guys waiting to be saved, admired adults even when they failed us, and believed in the infinite magic of possibility. Even in the chaotic instability of a broken home, this was of great, great comfort to us.
And so was dinner.
Food happened to be one of the only ways we were nurtured as children, and boy, did we look forward to it. We were starving for nourishment in a million ways, and a hot meal always did just the trick, if not temporarily.
But the veil of infallible optimism began to fade into our adulthood, as it tends to do… and our emotions became more complex. Relationships with things like food became deeply ingrained habits. And when we both came to terms with the fact that the dinners of our childhood were mostly frozen, inexpensive, and doused with jarred tomato sauce- thrown together just because we were obligatory mouths to feed- our love for food grew into resentment. At least, mine did.
I learned that elsewhere in the world, marinara had been simmered over the stove all day. And that later that night, it would be served with affectionate kisses on the forehead, gushing expressions of pride with accomplishment and encouragement in the wake of a failure.
Not bitter bickering about money from the table’s ends and explicitly expressed guilt for being a financial burden of a child. Not gathering immense courage to ask for something I wanted, instead of something I needed, at the risk of being ridiculed and mocked by a parent. And certainly not choking down the third bowl of spaghetti that week that I could no longer stand at the risk of awakening the inner rage of the person who cooked it.
The causticity I had been tasting as an adult in red sauce was this; the reason I had avoided it for so long. And yet- memories of my twin sister’s innocence was the sweetness that had saved it.
Human beings are no longer just surviving. We have evolved into emotionally intelligent, complex, and contemplative creatures with endless curiosity about ourselves and the unknown parts of our world. It’s only natural that we seek purpose, creating meaning from the mundane.
In this sense, food is no longer just food. Ego’s ratatouille was nostalgic and comforting enough to alter his life’s trajectory- the stuffed shells I ate at a wedding reminded me of the love and goodness that permeated an otherwise tumultuous childhood.
These experiences are real life versions of time travel. Food has an incredible ability to transport us back to a time where we were safe and cared for, before the tragedies of adulthood left its scars and dimmed our lights… it can even take us back to a time when they were happening.
And when we enter this emotional space as we eat, we have a one-of-a-kind opportunity to reflect on parts of ourselves and our personal histories that are otherwise invisible.
This intimate moment of personal growth might not be something we expected to be born from a bite of food, but it is something that most chefs understand quite well. From my experience, it’s the big flavor we’re always searching for. One that we definitely have a responsibility to use only for good.