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A real-life top chef dishes out tips to ‘Ratatouille’ filmmakers

French Laundry chef Thomas Keller, left, teaches Ratatouille Producer Brad Lewis, right, how to make ratatouille in Yountville, Calif. (AP Photo/Pixar Animation Studios)

French Laundry chef Thomas Keller, left, teaches Ratatouille Producer Brad Lewis, right, how to make ratatouille in Yountville, Calif. (AP Photo/Pixar Animation Studios)


Lights, camera … saffron?

“Ratatouille,” Pixar’s new film about one rat’s dream of haute cuisine, came by its acting chops the old-fashioned way, turning to real-life chef Thomas Keller for the inside dish on kitchen kinetics.

Keller’s stint as rat-a-tutor was part of an intensive prepping effort that included signing up the Pixar crew for cooking classes and sending filmmakers to dine in fine French restaurants.

The idea was to make sure the computer animation turned the gourmet goodness cooked up by Remy – the lead rat in “Ratatouille” – into a feast for the eyes.

“It was important that it looked really appetizing,” said Kim White, the movie’s lighting supervisor at Emeryville-based Pixar Animation Studios. “The food needed to look absolutely as beautiful as it could look.”

So, sauces gleam with a rich patina, soups bubble with a palpable zest, chopped celery flies into a pot in a celadon whirl.

The finished product looks effortless, but it wasn’t.

“Going into the movie we knew food was going to be hard,” said Apurva Shah, the movie’s effects supervisor. “Food is almost the opposite of a lot of computer stuff. It’s organic. It’s sloppy. It’s fluid.”

For the chopping sequences, Shah and his colleagues used what they learned from cooking class and watched videos of kitchen work to figure out such things as what kind of marks should be left on the board and whether to have little pieces of food clinging to the knife. The biggest challenges were the more elastic foods – how to make dough squish and bulge and wine slosh and swirl into glasses.

For Keller, the partnership began some years ago when the filmmakers asked if they could observe the French Laundry kitchen. “I said, ‘Of course!'” Eventually, he was asked to make a version of the film’s titular dish and also got a few lines as a restaurant patron. “It was the way I like things to happen; it just be- came a relationship,” Keller said.

The joy of cooking is central to the movie, which revolves around Remy’s efforts to teach hapless kitchen garbage boy Linguini how to cook.

Really, it’s Remy doing the cooking, hiding under Linguini’s toque and controlling the youth by pulling on his hair.

Rats in the kitchen aren’t everyone’s idea of a recipe for success. But filmmakers played down the “Willard” factor by making Remy a fiend for hygiene, a characteristic that is true to life said White, who has rats as pets. At one point, the conscientious Remy runs a pack of rat cooks through a dishwasher before letting them loose on the food.

The climactic scene comes as Remy and a host of fellow rats race to make a dish of ratatouille toothsome enough to win over snooty food critic Anton Ego.

Traditional ratatouille is a rustic vegetable dish, but for the movie, Keller created an elegant, layered version, tasty enough to melt the heart of even the crustiest critic.

For Keller, the ensuing scene where Ego realizes that great cooks can come from unexpected places resonated personally – “certainly as a restaurateur, as somebody else who didn’t specifically have any formal training, just was very determined to be a good cook,” he said. “How he came to realize that it does not necessarily have to be somebody who is a figurehead … that was an important part for me.”

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