A plate of ratatouille, served confit byaldi style

A Rat in Paris

Unless you live in a swamp and your name is Shrek, you probably shouldn’t be writing about rats in the food column of any newspaper. But this isn’t any rat, this rat is culinary. And, I’m not talking about the natural development of French cuisine from escargots and frog legs to some sort of rodent-related dish. I’m obviously talking about Remy from the 2007 Pixar film, Ratatouille.

It has been almost sixteen years since the release of Ratatouille. Since then, the somewhat unlikely story of a young chef controlled by a rat hiding in his hat has reached timeless status, a cultural reference most people are familiar with. Allusions to Ratatouille abound on TikTok and in film. Last year, in the Oscar-winning Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), the ‘Raccacoonie’ gag about a raccoon controlling the movements of a teppanyaki chef from inside his hat had audiences in stitches. Not to mention the 2020 TikTok trend, Ratatouille: The Musical, where, in the manic days of the first Covid-19 lockdown, TikTokers produced, popularised and ranked musical theatre-style songs about Remy the rat.

Allusions to Ratatouille abound on TikTok and in film.

I’ve often wondered what it is about Ratatouille that makes it so timeless. Is Remy simply a mid-noughties Emily in Paris, running around a fictionalised version of the city of love, showing other people how to do their jobs correctly?

Perhaps, we love Remy for his passion for food. From the very beginning of the film we see Remy expressing his excitement about food, and his almost supernatural talent for detecting ingredients with just a sniff. Remy walks on two legs, where his rat brethren walk on four, he prefers to eat ‘real food’, where the other rats are content with scraps and waste left out by humans.

Enamoured with human cooking, he looks at the old woman’s TV as chef Gusteau proclaims that ‘anyone can cook, but only the fearless will be great.’ Inspiring stuff indeed. Remy seemingly has ambitions that are beyond what we would usually expect of a rat, and definitely beyond where anyone would be comfortable allowing a rat to go.

Or maybe, we love Remy for defying expectations. Coming from a clan excluded from society and persecuted by humans, Remy is repeatedly told by his father that he needs to accept his position as hated and hunted. Yet, from the moment of his arrival in the restaurant of the late chef Gusteau, he helps Linguini cook delicious food, generates excellent reviews for the restaurant, and wins over food critic Anton Ego with his cooking. By the end of the film, he has even opened his own restaurant that caters to both rats and humans. Is this the closest we’ve ever come to inter-species peace?

Or, it could be that we adore Remy for democratising cooking. If short king Remy can cook with his small legs and tiny rat paws, surely anybody can. What’s more, his choice of dish for Anton Ego, ratatouille, harks back to the fields of Provence in southern France, where it was first made by peasants to cook their end-of-season harvest of courgettes, peppers, aubergines and tomatoes into a stew. Cooking a dish with peasant origins surely wasn’t just for the wordplay in the title of the film. Are Pixar trying to make a comment on the elitism of French haute-cuisine and food criticism, by having a rat cook a peasants’ dish? Is Remy the people’s hero that we didn’t know we needed?

Is Remy the people’s hero that we didn’t know we needed?

Regardless, Ratatouille is a film replete with deliciously animated food. It is a treat for the eyes and ears. Remy’s love of food is translated through synaesthesia—a symphony of strawberries and cheese combined to create depth, melody and rhythm. Chopped vegetables fly through the air, and dried herbs descend elegantly into a simmering pot. Despite having seemingly found a place (or a hat) in a high-end restaurant, surrounded by high-quality ingredients and haute cuisine, Remy can’t help but continue to aid his family. He steals for them and when he is eventually rejected by chef Linguini, he helps them to steal even more.

Remy isn’t, in fact, a mid-noughties Emily in Paris, he is her nemesis. He is a rat in Paris, who will never be accepted into the mainstream, but who chases his dreams nonetheless. Perhaps, we don’t love Ratatouille simply for its goofy charm, perhaps the appeal lies in this triumph of the underdog.

perhaps the appeal lies in the triumph of the underdog

Image credit: Amirali Mirhashemian on Unsplash

Image description: A plate of ratatouille, cooked in confit byaldi style, as it is served in the film.