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Inside Byrd Labs: Part II 

Unlocking the mystery of the ratatouille in Disney's 'Ratatouille'

When Brad Bird's Pixar/Disney animated film Ratatouille was released last summer, we were overwhelmed with buzz. Seldom has any movie gotten so unanimous a lovefest: The online movie review site Rotten Tomatoes gave it a critical 97 percent, with an audience rating of 100 percent. Even in the food world, there was a passionate response. "The atmosphere of the movie reminded me of the older, classic Disney-flicks, and then with a lot of great food scenes thrown in," was a post in the über-foodie portal

For those who somehow have escaped it, the plot involves a French rat with preternatural culinary skills, who befriends a clueless young wannabe cook in a once-famous Parisian restaurant.

It is an excellent film, though I thought the enthusiasm a little overwrought. It's like early Disney in terms of richness of detail, but far more advanced in terms of camera angles and overall design. Everything is so effortless that you have to pull back to notice the technique. Certainly it's the most sophisticated animation movie in half a century.

But for me, the story line was highly flawed. Credibility gap after gap, especially in the food. What are those odd white cubes that go into everything — butter?

What kept me enthralled, though, was the restaurant kitchen, in which much of the film takes place, and the choreography among cooks. At its best, a restaurant kitchen at prime time is an exciting place to be, and the film captures this.

The other captivating element was the one truly special dish, the magic dish, the title dish. Ratatouille.

Ratatouille, to puncture some balloons, is about the least exciting contribution known to French country cuisine. Frankly, it is dull, a summer vegetable stew composed of the things one ends up with too much of: lots of squash, sweet pepper and eggplant in a thick tomato/garlic sauce. The French commonly serve it as a side dish (though certainly it has a history as a peasant main course, with bread). I have never had one I truly enjoyed. The classic French Family Cooking by Philomenep, incorporating a score of wonderful vegetable recipes, doesn't even mention it.

Now it gets interesting. The movie hired the legendary Thomas Keller (of The French Laundry in Yountville) as consultant, and asked him to create the signature dish himself. And in the movie, the presentation of this dish is spectacular — a small tower of delicate slices surrounded by a sauce. So how did Keller re-invent a pedestrian dish as a culinary masterpiece? Well, his website says it's the same as a New York Times recipe for something called, "Confit Byaldi."

But it's not. I was hawkeyed while that sequence went on, and what takes place in the movie is not what is in the Times recipe. What they have in common is thin slices of yellow and green squash, aubergine (the cylindrical eggplant) and Roma tomato, united by a very complex sauce of roasted sweet peppers (in three colors), peeled and seeded tomatoes and a lot of garlic.

The Times recipe spreads a large sauté pan with the sauce (a roasted sweet pepper/garlic sauce, called "piperade"), then creates a spiral of very thin sliced vegetables. Like the glorious above by Lysa Lapointe in the online magazine eGullet.

But pretty as it is, this gives no help in assembling the towers on individual plates; indeed, Ms. Lapointe says that her individual presentations, while delicious, were messy.

So how did Keller re-engineer this dish so that it would fit into the movie?

Re-engineer is perhaps not the best word. Actually, "Confit Byaldi" is a recipe that has been around for years. Right away, I noted differences between the recipe and the movie. I hate to blaspheme the Saintly Thomas, but he should never have given it his blessing. I hope this was simply oversight, because he's the best thing that's happened to American cuisine in the past two decades.

The essence of both recipes, in print and in the movie, is that instead of the pedestrian combination of summer squash, peppers, tomato and eggplant in a garlicky stew, the cylindrical vegetables are sliced into thin rounds, and arranged, alternating, over a piperade which is set in a slow oven just long enough for the vegetable juices to evaporate, while wicking up the flavor of the sauce. There should be no liquid left in the dish. In the movie, this was done in an oven baking dish, covered with parchment.

Thus the essential elements of the peasant dish are preserved, but weak flavors are replaced by potent ones – reduced sweet peppers, tomatoes, garlic and onion under, with garlic/herb olive oil drizzled over. After a couple hours, this is removed, then chilled. Then the vegetable slices are lifted out and plated in a spiral ziggurat, surrounded by a thick vinaigrette incorporating the remaining piperade. The movie version was a tiny perfect sculpture, of course.

Labor intensive, yes, but doable. Except that right from the start, the instructions kept being wrong. I started off following them (ignoring my own experience) and worked an extra hour as a result. Only then did I begin to realize how many pitfalls there were in the recipe. For example, one bay leaf and a sprig each of thyme and parsley will not do much for a quart of fresh tomato sauce!

Then there was the matter of the thickness of vegetable rounds. I was convinced that the called-for 1/16 inch was too thin, and indeed it would make vegetable mush of the whole thing. But even 1/8 was too thin. So the rounds, which should have some texture, simply clumped. Here is what my assembly looked like in a baking dish instead of a sauté pan. (See left photo at top of previous page.)

I don't want to get caught up in trivia, so let me say that virtually every single instruction was significantly off, just enough that an amateur would simply give up.

I hate that. I hate the hypocrisy of faking a recipe to look like what you had at the three-star restaurant, but making certain you will never be able to recreate the dish yourself. Not for me, someone who is alert to misinformation, but for well-intended household cooks, who deserve better.

Of course, it is time-honored practice of artists to mystify what they do. There is no excuse for that kind of nonsense today. If you don't want it known, don't share it. But please don't give out misinformation!

Likewise, the piperade vinaigrette had to be re-invented almost from scratch. The recipe provides about a quarter of what is needed, the flavors are far too bland to complement the vegetables and you are told to "dribble" it around the mound. But I was working not just from the recipe, and not from my own invention: I was using my memory of what the movie had shown, which was a smooth, not chunky, surrounding sauce (not "dribbled"). (See right photo at top of page 34.)

This is probably why my colleague Lysa didn't think her presentation was worth a photo. As noted, the movie version is a small exquisite plate, with a perfectly symmetrical sculpted tower.

But funky or not, this was an absolutely spectacular dish. The flavors melded, and despite the absence of "al dente" vegetables the texture was pure velvet.

Meanwhile my sources say that Thomas Keller is now serving this dish at Per Se and The French Laundry. Does he actually make it look like the film? I wonder how? It would be fun to discover his secrets, perhaps as a fly on the wall of the kitchen – or maybe a rat in the rafters.

Readers are invited to share their impressions with Joseph at P.S. The recently released DVD has interesting background footage with Thomas Keller.

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Joseph Byrd

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