It’s nice to be validated.
Due in large part to the popularity of a delightful and entertaining animated movie, countless people have now tried, or at least heard about, a once obscure dish from the Provencal region of France called ratatouille [Ra-tuh-TOO-ee]. My own experience with this stupendous vegetable stew came during the early part of my career when I worked as a student cook at the legendary Maxim’s, the first truly authentic French restaurant in Chicago, and later at L’Escargot, Chicago’s first real French bistro. It was a revelation. Eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes, slowly cooked with onions and garlic in olive oil in a dish best served (can you believe it?) at room temperature.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. And I can’t believe them now, or at least I don’t want to, when I see the current version of this great dish.
Change, of course, is inevitable, and must surely be embraced if one is to successfully compete in today’s culinary world. But do we all have to be creative all the time? Can’t we recognize and accept when a dish has reached perfection and embrace, instead, the notion that repetition and consistency have a place in the culinary “arts”? I would argue that the very notion of consistency is all but gone from the culinary landscape today. Case in point: ratatouille, and my welcome validation.
Anthony Bourdain is one of my favorite celebrity chefs. I truly enjoy his show on the Travel Channel, and I especially like his frankness and honesty. On the show from Provence, in the south of France, he bravely, but mistakenly, offers to cook ratatouille for the host who is escorting him around the region. His version of the dish is pretty much the way it’s being done these days — the aforementioned ingredients, all evenly diced, cooked separately and artfully combined to emphasize the integrity of each of the ingredients.
When he presented the dish to his host, she asked what it was and was told it is ratatouille. Her comment, “It’s very nice, but it’s not ratatouille,” was music to my ears. Happily, and with respect to Chef Bourdain, I offer what I believe to be an authentic version. Most recipes for ratatouille contain either green or red bell peppers, but as I recall from my days at Maxim’s, we did not include them. Here’s how I do it — a perfect dish for the summer season. Serve at room temperature!