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A visit from the scary food critic

Even fictional people have to eat. Sometimes food reveals what we should know about a character, sometimes it’s a pleasant pause in the action, sometimes it’s crucial staging platform for exposition, and sometimes it’s how the fairy folk back home cure their three-day stubble. Food Fiction is an ongoing feature that looks at some of the most memorable foods in the history of storytelling.

As long as there are stories set in restaurants, there will be food critics giving chefs nightmares. The Moody Foodie, voiced by Patton Oswalt, has been putting restaurants out of business with his reviews, and he’s just shown up at Bob’s Burgers.

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Panic. Fear. Jitters at being placed under scrutiny, a determination to rise to the challenge, and eventually, impotent anger at the injustice of being judged by someone powerful who might not understand the particular gifts of the chef—there’s basically only one way for a fictional restaurateur to react to a fictional food critic, and Bob goes through the paces.

Two recent examples of that emotional sequence just left theaters. The events of the film Chef are set in motion by a tantrum thrown by the title character toward a powerful critic; similarly, across the hall in theaters that very same weekend, the third act (or fourth, or fifth—it’s a long movie) of The Hundred-Foot Journey also turns on the visit of a powerful critic. And again, there’s the fear, jitters, and impotent anger.

Inevitably, Bob’s Burgers is visited by a harsh critic, but with the characters’ resistance to doing anything in a normal way, the story ends with the critic accidentally held hostage by the family. Although redemption finally comes at the last minute, Bob never learns that Moody Foodie actually does love his burger—the critic shares the moment only with a confused 911 operator. Unlike many fictional critic/chef encounters, there is no final understanding between the two.

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If you’re new to Bob’s Burgers and were going to call up one episode on your Netflix account, this season-two episode might be the place to start. Not only do you have the usual rapid-fire one-liners from the whole family, and rare attention drawn to the daily burger pun, but you get the voice of Remy—that unlikely rat star of Parisian cuisine—coming out of the mouth of the Moody Foodie himself, on the opposite side of the gifted-chef/powerful-critic equation.

The producers of Bob’s Burgers say they cast so many stand-up comedians because they already know how to be funny using only their voices. But in a show full of pop culture references, it’s no coincidence they asked Oswalt to star as the prickly, unsatisfiable critic: Pixar’s Ratatouille contains one of cinema’s most well-articulated denunciations of the uselessness and cowardice of negative reviews, presented as a rumination on the role of food criticism. The film’s villainous critic is Anton Ego, voiced by Peter O’Toole and worth panicking about:

The skull in the typewriter. The coffin-shaped chamber. The vampiric complexion. Once Remy the rat creatively interprets the titular dish and awakens the vulnerable child within the dour adult, we see every artist’s fantasy: Ego’s pen drops in dramatic slow motion with exaggerated sound effects. Then, there’s a seduction: The most dangerous (and therefore desirable) trophy/critic in town is instantly converted. He fully and rapturously experiences his first uncomplicated, pure emotion in years and rewards the artist with an unfiltered, honest, glowing reaction to a work of genius. After that, it’s fitting that Ego delivers the explication of food criticism (and criticism in general).

In the world of fictional food-critic rankings, Ego’s probably on top of the pile of scary fictional food critics, but he’s right above Oliver Platt’s Ramsey Michel in Chef, the most recent scary restaurant critic with a blog we’re told is enormously influential. Yet if we expand the search, perhaps the winner is Willa Frank, from the T.C. Boyle short story “Sorry Fugu.”

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In Boyle’s story, Frank is a caustic food critic with an ear for the musical possibilities of rude insults (the title itself, for example, or “limp radicchio,” “a blasphemy of baby lamb’s lettuce,” or, “For all its rather testy piquancy, the orange sauce might just as well have been citron preserved in pickling brine”). She consistently butchers restaurants in her reviews, so naturally she must withhold her approval of the protagonist’s skill until he cleverly, humorously lures her into his kitchen and (we infer) literally seduces her with squid rings in aioli sauce, homemade fennel sausage, glacé of grapefruit and Meyer lemon, and a pan of “Russian coulibiac of salmon, en brioche, with its rich sturgeon marrow and egg.”

The fugu mentioned in the title is the key: Willa Frank the food critic doesn’t trust her own taste, and explains that the dish actually numbs the lips, teeth, and mouth—which our hero considers sacrilege. It’s clear the chef is now in charge of the situation when she confesses fugu is her favorite, after previously telling him, “Besides, to like something, to really like and come out and say so, is taking a terrible risk. I mean, what if I’m wrong? What if it’s really no good?”

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In Ego’s big speech and in Frank’s numbing blowfish, there is the explicit accusation that critics are afraid to like what they’re reviewing, and hide their lack of qualifications for rendering judgment under laughably awful language: “We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read,” as Ego puts it. This raises the question, is there a way for a work of art to criticize critics without coming off as a little bit petulant?

To be utterly honest, the mostly excellent Ratatouille seems, in the end, to have been building for most of the story toward a big complaint about critics, after all the fun and beauty that came before. Unlike most of the previous, tightly plotted Pixar films, Ratatouille takes a long time to figure out what it wants to be about: Is it about following your unlikely dreams, and trusting your instincts? Is it about the responsibility each of us has to achieve self-actualization, and learn to trust? Is it about friendship among those who balance out each other’s deficiencies, a relationship that grows from convenience but ends in love? Yes, all that, and the thrill of cooking and creating, and having high standards (spelled out by the script and visually demonstrated as well, by the advances in animation and Brad Bird’s famous staging, framing, and visual effects). Then, in the end, the movie turns into a gigantic parable. The critic sinks all the cash he makes from merely commenting on the hard work of others into an enterprise he can believe in, a place where true creativity can happen. Maybe he can’t make the incredible meals himself, but he can fund and protect the revolutionary spirit of the artist he has gone into business with.

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That’s how both Chef and Ratatouille play out, and also The Hundred-Foot Journey if you count Helen Mirren’s imperious, French-cooking expert, competitor-neighbor-lady as a critic: The difficult critic is eventually won over to the essential brilliance of the artist and funds the chef’s future.

In the end, that funding-of-the-chef part is the key to a happy ending. It’s why films as presumably different as Chef and Ratatouille reduce to the same bones: Preternaturally gifted chef is in danger of losing access to the kitchen he loves and the public he loves to cook for, and his whole future depends on impressing a notoriously unpleasant critic—who turns out to be the one person who can appreciate him fully and happens to have barrels of cash.

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This metaphorical critique of critics comes from a basic, perennial fact: Great artists often resent having their livelihood dependent on people who can’t or don’t fully appreciate their gifts. Nearly every brilliant creator is constantly seeking two things: patronage and appreciation. Bach had to kiss up to the Margrave Of Brandenburg to pitch his concertos. According to Peter Shaffer’s screenplay for Amadeus, Mozart was trapped between the brainless emperor, who paid for the work, and the treacherous, mediocre Salieri, who understood the genius of Mozart but was jealous and tried to sever Wolfgang’s connection to benefactors in the aristocracy. In the end, it all becomes a question of winning over those who shouldn’t control one’s livelihood, but do. There are other endings besides happily winning the favor and support of those threatening to ruin the protagonist—acts of vengeance, seduction—but it all stems from a practical fear of financial ruin, which means riding on the critic’s visit is the artist’s ability to do it again tomorrow.

Restaurants and symbolic culinary artistry create a tidy little analogy for every artist’s fear of destitution and anonymity, and not just because the unschooled, boundary-pushing chef in question wants to find someone who can honestly appreciate his gift. Running a restaurant is expensive, but also depends on the whims of local popularity. There’s a tie between the showmanship of delivering art and the fundamental imperative of making a living, keeping a business afloat, or even sustaining a city rocked by Katrina and fighting its way back—and that bridge is made raw and vivid by a generic food-critic storyline.

What’s interesting in Treme’s case is the blending of fiction and reality—that’s an actual review in GQ by a critic named Alan Richman Janette is reading. Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who wrote the scenes around the Richman storyline, devoted a chapter in his book Medium Raw to calling the man a douchebag.

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It underscores that, though the Moody Foodie and Anton Ego are cartoons, and Ramsey Michel and Willa Frank are (technically) fictitious creations resembling no actual persons living or dead, the tension between the words of food critics, the dreams of chefs, and the financial viability of actual restaurants is not a dramatic contrivance. In Bill Buford’s excellent participation-journalism-memoir Heat, in which he apprentices with Mario Batali’s restaurant Babbo, the author schedules a “debriefing dinner” at the end of his time in the restaurant in preparation for writing the book—but the dinner has to be postponed because a food critic for The New York Times announced he was visiting Babbo, a critic with the power to take away one of the restaurant’s incredibly important three stars. After intense preparation, the restaurant does manage to retain that third star—but the tension causes Batali and his staff incredible stress.

In Treme, the tension is relieved when Janette Desautel, who is learning to cook in the kitchen of a New York restaurant, orders a Nawlins-symbolic cocktail—a Sazerac—and throws it in Richman’s face. According to Bourdain’s fantasy-serving-as-teleplay, she ends up an Internet heroine, “a Bonnie without a Clyde.”

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Does vengeance ever play out in real life? Who knows. So far, there are no reports of Guy Fieri throwing a watermelon margarita in the face of New York Times critic Pete Wells, who wrote a one-star review that made the rounds a couple of years ago because of its mercilessly comic series of miserable rhetorical questions in “Guy’s American Kitchen And Bar in Times Square.” Ruth Reichl, former Times critic and former Gourmet editor-in-chief, blogs about restaurants in a mostly anodyne way, but recently had to register her disgust at the Restaurant Jules Verne, a one-Michelin-starred joint at the top of the Eiffel Tower, which is serving food that reminds her of “nothing so much as first class airline food.” Perhaps Ms. Reichl should stand ready for a face full of the expensive wine she was served that, in her words, was “going through a second fermentation.”

In the end, the underlying message in the trope of the food critic visit can be adjusted to the writer’s (and producer’s) tastes: Do that one thing you always do, or prepare a greatest-hits show of your best stuff. It all depends on the lesson the protagonist chef needs to learn—and sometimes it’s as simple as the moral of Bob’s Burgers Moody Foodie hostage situation: “Listen, kids, taping people to chairs is bad. Never do this.”

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Upcoming: “As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”

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