“You Cannot Be Mommy”: A Female Cook on Ratatouille -The Toast

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20100629025142!ColettePixar’s Ratatouille is a masterpiece, a beautiful, fun, well-made movie all on its own. But it also touches the heart of gastronomy, the love and study of deliciousness. For a cook, for someone who devoted her life to food and cooking for years, it’s deeply moving. It came out sometime after I graduated culinary school, while I was working my first few prep jobs, chopping and washing, and maybe occasionally plating a salad. Ratatouille was an inspiration to me.

And it has Colette Tatou:

You waste energy and time! You think cooking is a cute job, eh? Like Mommy in the kitchen? Well, Mommy never had to face the dinner rush while the orders come flooding in, and every dish is different and none are simple, and all different cooking time, but must arrive at the customer’s table at exactly the same time, hot and perfect! Every second counts and you CANNOT be MOMMY!

Colette, of course, is the one woman cook in the kitchen at Gusteau’s:

How many women do you see in this kitchen? . . . Only me. Why do you think that is? Because high cuisine is an antiquated hierarchy built upon rules written by stupid, old men. Rules designed to make it impossible for women to enter this world. But still I’m here. How did this happen? . . . Because I am the toughest cook in this kitchen! I have worked too hard for too long to get here, and I am not going to jeopardize it for some garbage boy who got lucky! Got it?

She is, too. The crew at Gusteau’s is pretty (stereo)typical, a bunch of guys most people wouldn’t, at first blush, want to meet in dark alleys, some of whom have spent time in prison for unknown reasons, or are serious gamblers, or gun runners, or just slimy little guys about whom you have to wonder how they made it to the station they have. They left out the drinking and drugs and the obscenities — it is a Disney picture — but none of these things are uncommon. Gusteau’s may have a higher concentration of, ahem, colorful characters than most real kitchens, but cooks are a motley bunch of misfits. Just think how tough must Colette be to be tougher than these guys.

I’m going to ignore all the artifacts of the Disneyness of this movie — ok, most of them, there’s one I want to hit later — like the clean language, the obligatory minimum level of femininity, the romance. Generally, though, she’s really a very accurate portrayal, even examined quite closely.

Notice that, while her position is never specified, she’s low enough on the totem pole that she’s given the job of training the despised plongeur (“garbage boy” in the film, actually dishwasher), a job only given to the person occupying the station the new person is moving into, so she’s pretty damn low. She’s been doing cleanup, and maybe some vegetables and soup. Notice how she doesn’t want to train him: she’s worked damn hard to get as far as she has, and she knows that training a male for the same job could mean she’s going to watch him be promoted above her in short order (which, in fact, happens). Notice how she trains him anyway . . . and then actually thanks him for listening, almost pathetically grateful for him giving her even that minimum of respect. Notice how she is then hurt and angry when he ignores her advice and blows past her anyway.

Notice also how Colette wants to follow the recipe precisely, while the male Linguini shines when rat Remy nudges him into improvising. One of the standard stereotypes in restaurant kitchens is that women are precise, follow recipes and directions to the letter, but that men are bold experimenters, trying new things, pushing the boundaries. The only recipes women are fit to change at all are the ones handed down by their grandmothers – another gender stereotype in cooking, that women cook old-fashioned homestyle comfort food, while men make bold, challenging strong food. Women cook with their hearts, men cook with their head and their dicks. (That’s only a slight paraphrase, and the original really did say dicks.)

Did you catch the nasty little remark the Sous Chef, Horst, tosses at her as he leaves after Linguini and Remy impress people? “The plongeur won’t be coming to you for advice anymore, eh, Colette? He’s got all he needs.” He takes the opportunity to remind her of her place, and to confirm her worst fears.

And yet, Colette soldiers on, despite everything, because she loves the food and the cooking. Oh, yeah, that’s a woman cook all over.

Understand me here: I am not criticizing Pixar for putting these things in. I am applauding them. The writers and animators spent serious amounts of time in the several professional kitchens they based Gusteau’s on, learning to understand the relationships and dynamics found in those kitchens. They did a remarkable job, and when I watched that movie the first time, I identified with Colette completely. There aren’t many movies about women cooks that are accurate. It feels really good to see that portrayed on screen in a major film. It’s freaking awesome.

But now I want to go back and touch on one of those Disney-mandated unrealistic things. The romance.

It’s a bad plan in any profession for a competent, capable woman to date a male superior. Any promotion she earns will be dismissed as favoritism from her boyfriend and any skill she has will be ignored. She cannot possibly be any good, or anything other than a slut, trying to get ahead by sleeping her way there.

Linguini announced his and Colette’s relationship to the press, “Inspiration has many names. Mine is named Colette.” That moment in the movie is supposed to be about how he’s betraying Remy by not being honest, but he’s betraying Colette nearly as much just by these two sentences. In eight words, he demotes her from competent cook on the way up to artist’s muse. As the former, she could keep working her way up. As the latter, she might never get another job in a really good kitchen again, if she and Linguini break up. That gets ignored, of course, shellacked over with Remy’s story, some sharp remarks, and that trademarked Disney happy-ever-after. You can still see it there, embedded in the story, even if you can’t touch it, buried under that clear medium.

I know, I know, they had to have the romance. It’s the way these stories work, isn’t it, and realism will have to take a backseat to that. And I accept that, even if it makes me a little sad. But Colette is still a good character, well and accurately written. I love and identify with her. I love the voice Janeane Garofalo gives her, and the expressions and movements the animators give her. She’s fantastic. I just . . . worry about her. I can’t help but write the rest of her story in my head. They open the cafe Le Ratatouille where Linguini waits tables while Colette helps Remy in the kitchen. But rats have a short life span, and three or four years later, Remy’s dead. Colette takes over, but though she’s tried to learn the kind of creative thinking Remy excelled at, she’s still limited by her early training, by being told that she can’t possibly be a creative cook because she’s a woman, and she just can’t manage his flights of fancy. The restaurant starts a slow decline. She and Linguini, married now, are fighting more and more.

Eventually, he hires a young, creative, male cook to “help her out” in the kitchen — without really consulting her, because he knows she won’t be happy — and the hotshot tries, more and more, to take over the kitchen. It’s making Colette crazy, and Linguini won’t back her up — he’s really a very weak man, and their major investor (Ego) is pressuring him to get Le Ratatouille back up to snuff. Times get worse and worse, and eventually she walks out on him and starts divorce proceedings. She still owns a share in the cafe, though, and keeps working there, because she knows how hard it will be for her to find another job. There’s just been too much press about how she’s Linguini’s inspiration, his muse. Eventually, though, she has to go, and sure enough, chefs make excuses. No one laughs in her face, but she hears the sniggers of the commis (apprentices, more or less) behind her back as she leaves the interview. Oh, eventually she might find a job at a good place, but it will be a lower position than she deserves, potager or entremetier, nothing on the entree line, not yet. She’ll have to work her way up all over again, earn all that respect again. And there will always be whispers, there will always be guys thinking she’s easy and coming on to her, when she just wants to get her prep done. Oh, eventually she’ll make a solid sous chef somewhere, but with that early training to always adhere to recipes, she may never make chef again. Depressing.

I can’t write an piece on Ratatouille without talking about the Big Scene, where Remy sends out a dressed-up peasant dish to critic Anton Ego, the titular ratatouille. The dish instantly transports Ego back to his childhood, to a day when he fell off his bike and skinned his knees, and his mother kissed him and gave him a big bowl of ratatouille. This is what every serious cook wants to do, to provoke a deep emotional response with their delicious food. Food is truly both craft and art, with both workaday boring fuel and deeply moving numinous experiences create from the same basic skillset.

The dish presented is actually French Laundry chef-owner Thomas Keller’s byaldi recipe (found in his French Laundry Cookbook), his variant on confit byaldi, created by French chef Michel Guerard as a play on traditional Provencal ratatouille and a Turkish dish called imam bayildi. Keller was a consultant on the film, and created the specific presentation depicted when the Pixar crew asked him how he would serve ratatouille to the most prominent food critic in the world.

All of that is just background, though. What’s most interesting about this dish to me is that it represents a fascinating blend of two strongly gendered aspects of cooking: the focus on technique and stylized presentation attributed to men, and the “soulful grandmere-style” nourishing comfort food attributed to women. In the narrative of the movie, Remy manages to unite the two gendered styles in the same scene that reunites the lovers who quarreled over him. Interesting, and probably not intentional on the part of the writers.

If you’re interested in reading about a real life Colette, Amy Glaze Wittman of Ms. Glaze’s Pommes d’Amour spent time working in one of Guy Savoy’s three star* Paris restaurants, one of those the Pixar crew observed while doing research for Ratatouille. To read about some of Amy’s adventures in a French kitchen, check to the Chef Stories category. You’ll have to go archive diving, because since 2008 when she left France, she’s worked in several restaurants in NYC and San Francisco, and had her own kitchen, too. She’s an eloquent writer and accurately captures what it’s like to work in a really high-end kitchen as a woman. One of my favorite posts of hers is How to Talk Like a French Chef, a lesson in truly foul cursing. The Chocolate Chip Caper talks about how hard the job is sometimes, and oh boy can I identify.

I love the character of Colette. Depictions of women in professional kitchens are so rare in popular media, I want to treasure each good one. 

*Three stars from the Michelin Guide is a far higher accolade than five stars in any American guide. In Europe, “three star” is understood to mean these restaurants, and they are the finest in the world. In the movie, Gusteau’s is called a five star restaurant to make it easier for American audiences to recognize it as a really fine restaurant.

Rebecca Lynde-Scott is a former cook and restauranteur, and a current cranky feminist. She and her wife live in Seattle, and have a really shaggy dog.

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