Welcome to The Reheat, a space for Eater writers to explore landmark (and lukewarm) culinary moments of the recent and not-so-recent past.
In Ratatouille, Remy the rat dreams of being a chef. Mostly, it’s because he loves food so much, and finds endless creative spark in combining ingredients and imagining new flavors. But part of him wants the fame, too. When the media heaps their praise on Linguini, who pretends there isn’t a tiny rat controlling his limbs through his hair (???), he becomes furious, and seeks revenge by allowing the rest of his rat family to steal food from the restaurant. It’s not made explicit, but Remy sees himself as a singular talent — a rat who cooks! Who ever heard of such a thing? Surely he deserves some respect.
But Remy would do well to recognize his forebears. By which I mean the entire rat staff of Pete’s restaurant in Muppets Take Manhattan.
Jim Henson was probably not the first person to understand the humorous conceit of staffing a restaurant kitchen with the precise beings the entire Health Department was created to keep out, but he made the joke the backbone of the third Muppets movie. We’re first introduced to the concept when the Muppets dine at Pete’s restaurant, a modest diner run by a harried older man, his kind daughter, and a pack of short-order rats run by Rizzo. Pete explains that customers complained about rats as waiters, so he made them the cooks, and we pan to a rat with a blonde bouffant and a teal apron serving up a plate of fried eggs. Pete seems to be not great at his job — he once forgets to put a burger on a lady’s cheeseburger — so he needs all the help he can get.
Honestly, the world of the kitchen introduced by the rat kitchen crew’s scat song makes sense! Unlike the adage that too many cooks in the kitchen will only mess things up, Muppets Take Manhattan was the first to prove a different adage about rats in the kitchen, which is that many hands make light work. Everything seems pretty efficient when you have a bunch of tiny bodies. Why task one guy with watching all the pancakes when you could have a little rat assembly line? Why butter your griddle any other way than with a rat skating around it with butter pats on his little feet?
Ratatouille would later illustrate the brilliance of the rat kitchen further by orchestrating teams of rats to emulsify fine, French sauces and tenderize steaks with a classic military efficiency. It seems like a no-brainer to want rats during the dinner rush.
In the years since Muppets Take Manhattan was released in 1984, the idea of not just the well-regarded restaurant, but the celebrity chef, has taken off. In Ratatouille, Remy is concerned with being an artist, and a well recognized one at that. We do not know what the chefs in his restaurant make or whether they are adequately benefited (though, given that it’s France, they probably do slightly better than restaurant workers in America), but the food is imbued with magic that Remy’s singular mind invents. Leave the business and the bills to the humans, he is here to create. It’s a lovely sentiment, and something that drives chefs of all stripes yearning to make their marks.
But through Rizzo and his gang, we are reminded that for a lot of people, cooking is first and foremost a way to pay the bills. When he comes to get the Muppets’ order, Rizzo takes to task Floyd Pepper, who makes a joke about a rat working in food. “Do you think I do this as a hobby?… I live on tips. I work hard,” he cries, echoing sentiments that Remy never addresses. Cooking on the line and waiting tables are jobs that require skill and stamina, but are rarely financially rewarded. Rizzo is not in it for the accolades, but because, as a rat, he probably could not get a job anywhere else. Rizzo ditches their table when he realizes the Muppets have no money with which to tip.
Either way, the Muppet rats walked so Remy could run, and Muppets Take Manhattan is a reminder to respect everyone involved in bringing you your food, not just the chefs at the top. Oh, and don’t narc to the Health Department.