On the lasting impact, and new relevance, of cinema’s most fearsome cartoon food reviewer
Because the opening of the Ratatouille ride at Walt Disney World on October 1 is as good a reason as any, here now, a weeklong exploration of the 2007 rat-infested Pixar classic, Ratatouille.
Not too long ago, a Twitter user accused one of my restaurant reviews of being “weirdly mean,” linking my words to perhaps the most feared and famous fictional journalist of our era. “How Anton Ego of you Mr Sutton,” the user wrote, referring to the svelte, indoor scarf-wearing food critic from Ratatouille, an animated feature about a rat who ascends to the apex of French gastronomy by turning around a once-famous restaurant that had fallen into a rut. Standing in the way of that makeover, however, are a pencil-mustachioed health inspector and a very skeptical restaurant reviewer.
This is far from the first time that an internet naysayer has tossed around the name of Ego as if they were hurtling a schoolyard insult, a reality that jibes with a recent spate of popular artists (and their stans) lashing out against critics. Indeed, a quick scroll through Twitter shows folks selectively cutting and pasting Ego’s famous mea culpa: “We thrive on negative criticism.” A Chicago-based food columnist once deployed the character’s name as a pejorative verb, asking New York Times critic Pete Wells on Twitter whether it was cynical “to Anton Ego” Guy Fieri’s old Manhattan establishment.
All things considered, being compared to the secondary antagonist of an Academy Award-winning Disney-Pixar feature really isn’t the worst thing in the world; on previous occasions I’ve been told to “deep fry in hell” and “dine with ISIS.”
The thing is, these critics and a few other Ratatouille fans are misunderstanding Ego. He’s not the villain; he’s one of its unlikely heroes. Yes, Ego’s office is shaped like a coffin and he says things like, “I love food. If I don’t love it; I don’t swallow.” But the critic, alongside criticism as an institution, actually ends up being a savior in the film. Shortly before the finale, Ego delivers a review that doesn’t just save the rat-run restaurant from financial ruin and cultural oblivion, it also seeks to upend the stodgy world of fine dining — and serves as a rousing defense of how good criticism can make the culinary world more democratic, more creative, and more stimulating for everyone.
I get that, as someone who makes a living as a critic, calling out a fellow (if animated) critic and the entire art of criticism as heroic might seem less than surprising, but humor me as I so boldly declare the following: Getting called Ego isn’t an insult — it’s a compliment.
Hollywood has managed to create unlikely save-the-world figures out of dashing archaeologists, addled historians, dull office workers suffering from panic attacks, activist shopkeepers, Russian-speaking house cleaners, and in one notable case, a remarkably violent navy cook played by an actor who likes to pal around with Vladimir Putin. But whenever food critics show up on the big screen, they’re portrayed as typical semi-villainous cardboard foils for the film’s true heroes. In John Favreau’s 2014 movie, Chef, a film about a washed-up white guy who manages to attract serious crowds by serving Cuban sandwiches in [checks notes] Miami, a food blogger pokes fun at the lead character’s weight and emotional neediness. In Burnt, an Evening Standard critic played by Uma Thurman says her reviews are responsible for shutting down “bad” restaurants and she greets Bradley Cooper’s chef character (with whom she had sex) by exclaiming “one hoped you were dead.” And who could forget Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding, where the filmmakers portray her as a quick-to-judge food critic to portend her deeply sociopathic tendencies?
For most of Ratatouille, Anton Ego falls right into the villain-critic cliche, voiced by Peter O’Toole as if he was playing a devious funeral home director and drawn as if the animators put Loki’s head in a vice and aged him 40 years. Ego’s linguistic depredations commence with the lethality of a dagger: His initial brutal review of Gusteau’s is followed by the death of that venue’s chef (a possible allusion to a tragic real-world instance of self-harm). An evil successor known as Skinner nearly destroys the restaurant’s reputation by focusing on cheap frozen food. But then things take a turn for the better when Ego samples some very good ratatouille at that same restaurant, prepared by a talented vermin known as Remy. That dish transports Ego back to his childhood, warms any remaining blood in his icy veins, and ends up eliciting a follow-up critique, which he reads out loud for the audience:
In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.
I’m tempted to disagree with the question of thriving on negative criticism and risking very little — guess we critics have to settle those questions ourselves outside our local omakase joint after a few $27 cocktails — but it’s worth pausing here for a different reason. Some folks, including at least one big-deal tasting menu restaurant that tried to dismiss my writeup using the words of Ego, like to stop right here and leave out the rest when quoting the speech. But Ego, as it happens, has much more to say:
But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new: an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement.
They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto, “Anyone can cook.” But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau’s soon, hungry for more.
Here, Ego provides a remarkably nuanced example of criticism, questioning his own profession in hopes of making it better. He tips his hat to rethinking the aristocratic world of fine dining, arguing that high art can be a product of more pedestrian origins, and implicitly lets the viewer know that criticism can be a place to reckon with notions of privilege and wrestle with complicated ideas concerning the value of art and those who produce it.
Good criticism, in other words, isn’t just a space to absorb someone else’s judgements or to make an economic decision based on those edicts. Criticism is where we go to learn. Or at least that’s what Ratatouille tells us.
“A lot of people don’t know what ‘critic’ means. They think it means, ‘a person who criticizes,’” the late Roger Ebert wrote in his own 2008 Ratatouille-inspired essay, highlighting some of the bigger goals of reviewing beyond the type of superlative-laden service writing that ends up getting cut-and-pasted onto theater marquees (“the musical of…a…generation”). A good critic, Ebert writes, “is a teacher,” adding that they don’t have all the answers, but can be “an example of the process of finding your own answers.”
The role of a critic or artist as an informed, erudite professor — rather than a fickle tastemaker with a lifetime appointment — is a theme that Ratatouille takes seriously, and it’s what ultimately helps unite Remy and Ego as they follow parallel courses through life. In a particularly moving scene about taste, Remy uses the power of verbal descriptions to help a fellow rat, a creature whose consumption patterns are generally subsistence-based, to appreciate the nuances of a grape-and-cheese flavoring pairing. Of course, Remy isn’t just speaking to a rat, he’s speaking to us, the audience, a group of people who might have spent less time pondering the importance of such things than a professional cook — or eater. Ego, meanwhile, gets to use his review not just as a simplistic plot device (“will the restaurant survive?”) but as a means to shape our collective understanding of what’s happening at Gusteau’s and in the larger culinary world. He’s less a fastidious, exam-grading Michelin inspector, and more a Greek chorus, someone breaking the fourth wall and explaining to millions of viewers why it’s a big deal to, say, shine a light on someone outside the mainstream culinary establishment.
Times film critic A.O. Scott goes even deeper into the relationship between Remy and Ego in his excellent Better Living Through Criticism, a book that correctly argues that both characters share a similar purpose: “Remy and Ego both devote themselves, for reasons neither one entirely understands … to the especially intense appreciation of something everyone else either takes for granted or enjoys in a casual, undisciplined way. Food.” Despite the fact that Gusteau’s seemed destined to be a brand-name shell of its former self, both Remy and Ego end up playing equally vital roles in trying to save it.
One could go on about all these things, and about other smart depictions of restaurants in Ratatouille. The filmmakers were ahead of their time (perhaps not as much as Alain Passard) in presenting an haute take on a simple vegetable dish as the chief objective of desire. Indeed, the movie came out during the late aughts, a time when, in New York at least, a porky and meaty style of gastronomy was reigning supreme. And in an era where high-profile culinary figures still take up a lion’s share of the spotlight in reviews — despite efforts to change that reality — the chef-owner at Gusteau’s insists he did none of the cooking when Ego shows up.
The critic even waits all night just to meet the particular cook behind the majestic dish. That prescient scenario ended up foreshadowing serious real-world issues over culinary credit, and who gets to profit from a dish and who doesn’t. In this sense you could even say Ratatouille helped shift our focus away from the Gods of Food framework — even if it took more than a few years for us to shake ourselves out of that gaze, a process that’s admittedly still ongoing — and toward the more everyday folks (and animals) behind a dish or restaurant. Anthony Bourdain probably did as much and more with Kitchen Confidential, but I’d politely say that’s not the type of thing you’d show an 8-year-old.
Indeed, the fact that the writers and animators could make the movie’s critically minded issues semi-digestible for a child — and pleasantly debatable for adults — should act as a charge against not just lazy consumption but lazy reading (or film watching). Perhaps that’s one of the final truths of Ratatouille: In a world where some diners prefer to source their advice from context-light capsule reviews, nonsense user reviews, meaningless tiremaker stars, and arbitrary lists, Ego manages to pack his revolutionary speech into a 238-word missive that spans one minute and 55 seconds. It would literally take more time to read a Michelin writeup or a Yelp review, purported acts of journalism (or citizen journalism) that wouldn’t even come close to serving the reader as much as Pixar’s slinky and subversive work of fiction.
Of course, none of these musings about criticism provide for the same visual drama as waiting for, say, Julia Roberts to issue an impromptu culinary verdict before she tries to destroy the nuptials of a good buddy. But still, the fact that chefs and diners continue to admire the Ego speech a decade and a half after its debut — not something that could be said about scenes from Burnt or My Best Friend’s Wedding — suggests that viewers want a heck of a lot more substance from their restaurant critics, whether real or fictional. Ego is far from perfect, and I’d probably be escorted out of a restaurant if I told a waiter I’d like some “well-seasoned perspective” for dinner as he does, but for now I feel confident in saying he is nothing less than the finest food critic in all of cinema. Call me Anton.