Anyone Can Cook…

…But only the fearless can be great.” Chef Auguste Gusteau. (‘Ratatouille.’2007. Pixar Films).

I watched this film for the umpteenth time with my daughter the other night. (Yes, the one featured in the Rainbow Loom entry and the one who is still mad at me for posting her photo without official permission. That’s a violation of some digital likeness policy, right?)

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In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.Anton Ego, “The Grim Eater.”

There a so many debates going on in education right now it is almost impossible to categorize them, but one that has caught my attention as of late is the argument over the ‘gate-keepers’ of quality. We are doing a lot of hand-wringing over the lack of “rigor” in innovation. Will student centered learning water down standards and make kids dumb again? (I still chuckle at that phrase…it’s like Domino’s pizza saying that they are going to be more pizza focused). What will happen to quality? I recently read a scathing review of High Tech High’s project-based learning by a parent that basically stated his child was falling way behind math and other subjects while they were “playing around.”

But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the *new*. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends. -Anton Ego

The genius of this film is not that the inspiration comes from an unlikely source, but that it comes from the most unlikeliest of sources…a culinary RAT. However, it’s not as simple as the rat showing he can cook (“Anyone can cook, that doesn’t mean anyone SHOULD”). He has to mask his genius behind a bumbling human who happens to be the illegitimate child of the deceased Gusteau.

Collette, the love interest of the bumbling boy, says repeatedly to “follow the recipe,” a piece of advice she shares while jealously guarding her precarious position in a male-dominated culture. To get along you need to go along, with discipline, focus and attention to detail. There is no love in her work. You have to work hard and follow convention to get ahead.

Gusteau didn’t just say anyone could cook. He added “only the fearless could be great.” His book made cooking accessible. Anton Ego and the sous chef, resented that. They were the gatekeepers, the protectors of quality resisting the dismantling of standards and the death of haute cuisine.

Last night, I experienced something new: an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto, “Anyone can cook.” But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist *can* come from *anywhere*. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau’s soon, hungry for more. -Anton Ego

The film doesn’t make it easy for “the rat” to succeed. He struggles against every convention and notion of what a great chef needs to be. But the rat persists because it’s his passion. Innovation does not mean giving every child a trophy or a gold star. It does not mean the death of standards or classical based education. It does not mean that because we believe that ‘anyone can cook’ that anyone can be the best. It does not mean because our children are learning in different ways that they won’t get into college or have a future.

What it means is that it is our job as educators to open that possibility, not deny it. After all, it was no coincidence that Anton’s last name was ‘Ego.’

Of course, there’s only one suitable 80’s video for this one…Enjoy Eat It and Anton Ego’s final speech

About Stephen Dexter, Jr.

Stephen is an international educator and administrator. A native of the United States, he lives with his wife Stephanie (a specialist in families in global transition) in Croatia along with his daughter and son. With a career that spans over twenty years in public, private and international schools, he writes when he can and is on a quest to discover if "text walking" is changing the human brain.
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