A Taste of Whimsy Wows the French

Hélène Darroze, one of the two top-ranked female chefs in France and whose Paris restaurant kitchen was studied by the makers of
Hélène Darroze, one of the two top-ranked female chefs in France and whose Paris restaurant kitchen was studied by the makers of "Ratatouille," says the movie is about a passion that chefs understand. (By Molly Moore -- The Washington Post)
By Molly Moore and Corinne Gavard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 14, 2007

PARIS -- In barely two weeks, a rat has managed to seduce the French and convince them that perhaps not all Americans are gastronomic louts, and that there might be hope yet for bridging the transatlantic cultural divide.

"Ratatouille," the animated Hollywood movie starring a rat who overcomes all odds to become a chef in a venerable Paris restaurant, is defying stiff odds itself. Its Aug. 1 premiere in France drew the fourth-highest opening day attendance in French movie history.

Reviewers, viewers and even the country's top chefs -- famous worldwide for mega-egos -- are gushing over the movie's technical accuracy and attention to culinary detail.

"When Colette teaches the young cook how you cut onions, how you cook vegetables in a pan, how you season everything -- that's it, that's how we do it!" said television celebrity chef Cyril Lignac, owner of the trendy bistro Le Quinzième. Colette is a chef in the movie's fictional restaurant.

Disparaged by the French both for its soulless fast food and Hollywood's takeover of world film markets, the United States has discovered that the fastest route to the French heart is through the stomach. Perhaps only in France could a movie about food draw such blockbuster attendance on opening day, surpassed only by "Asterix and Obelix vs. Caesar," "Men in Black" and "Spider-Man."

"Of course it resembles the usual Disney films, but it has more taste," said Christiane Fillet, 37, who watched the movie this week at Les Halles cinema in Paris with her 7-year-old daughter, Elise. "I cook, and I can tell you that they know what they're talking about. I didn't expect such gastronomical knowledge from an American cartoon!"

French movie reviewers too have melted like sugar atop creme brulee. "One of the greatest gastronomic films in the history of cinema," Thomas Sotinel declared in the often stuffy daily newspaper Le Monde.

The creators of the cartoon spent weeks scrutinizing some of the most prominent chefs and kitchens in Paris.

"The Pixar team came to my restaurant, Le Quinzième, several times," said Lignac, referring to the animation studio that made the film. "They set microphones in my kitchens and recorded the atmospheres at different times of the day. I have a guest table with a direct view on the kitchen. While they were eating, they could see us in action."

Hélène Darroze, one of the two top-ranked female chefs in France, whose cheese plate inspired a course depicted in the movie, said the film crew set up two cameras in her two-star Restaurant Hélène Darroze in Paris's upscale 6th arrondissement. Then they pelted her with questions, she recalled.

But Darroze said it wasn't the 3-D rows of worn copper pots and gargantuan stoves -- or even her own cheese plate -- that captivated her heart when she watched the film.

"It is a movie about passion," she said. "We as cooks understand that, in the kitchen, everyone can live this passion, even if you're a rat."

"What makes the difference is that it's a declaration of love to France, Paris -- and good food," said Guillemette Odicino-Olivier, film critic for Télérama, a weekly magazine that publishes some of the most feared film critiques in the French press. "People like it so much because Paris is depicted the way we would like it to be -- with kitsch references mixed with elements that are more contemporary."

In the nearly five years since French officials defied President Bush and opposed the invasion of Iraq, people here generally feel they've gotten little from America. They were nonplused at the U.S. movement to take the French out of fries and refer to them as freedom fries. They were appalled at Americans pouring French wines down the sink in protest.

"Ratatouille" opened in 721 French theaters. At the same time, newly elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy is beseeching his countrymen to embrace the American belief that anyone can achieve dreams through hard work. The little rat chef, Remy, who repeats the same line to his garbage-eating fellow rodents, could have walked right out of a Sarkozy speech.

Christelle Desmarais, 26, a Paris schoolteacher, said she hopes the film will inspire more interest in cooking among children.

"Every year I organize one or two cooking classes with my 8- and 9-year-old pupils," Desmarais said as she left a theater showing the movie. "The girls always register first, but the boys prefer other activities. I'm sure next year some boys will be more interested thanks to this film. It shows that anyone can cook. Unfortunately, certain kids don't even know what a fish or a cow looks like."

Chef Darroze said she is convinced the film could help France's ailing professional kitchens, which are increasingly shunned by young workers because of the long hours and arduous working conditions. "We need more chefs," she said.

She also said fewer and fewer young chefs are willing to take the financial or career risks of trying to leap to the higher levels of French gastronomy, where the pressure from food critics and restaurant guides can give ambitious cooks ulcers.

The cartoon movie accurately depicts the elite rating systems that can make or break a restaurant's reputation and, in the case of failure, kill the spirit of a great chef. The movie's chef-idol, Gusteau, dies shortly after his restaurant loses two coveted stars; in 2003, well-known French chef Bernard Loiseau shot and killed himself after the GaultMillau restaurant guide downgraded him and rumors swirled that the Michelin Red Guide was going to remove one of his three stars.

French chefs who opened their kitchens and revealed their life stories to the movie producers say they wish their real-life French critics would follow the path of the film's Anton Ego, who the Paris press alleges is modeled after the acerbic food critic at the daily newspaper Le Figaro.

Ego, who has an uncanny resemblance to Dracula, is transformed by the rat chef's signature dish of ratatouille -- a savory melange of zucchini, eggplant and tomatoes. In a Proustian moment, it transports him back to his mother's kitchen table and makes him give up his life of gastronomic negativism.

But chefs were also willing to take the movie's depiction of themselves with a slice of humor.

"I really liked the way the film managed to mock French chefs by using a rat," said TV chef Lignac. "Of course, I would be terrified if I found a rat in my kitchen."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company