The Patton Oswalt Interview: the comic and Ratatouille voice actor talks eating in Chicago

from Chicago Tribune, by Kevin Pang

2007 was a year when comic Patton Oswalt’s food cred soared to new heights. First, he lent his voice to Disney-Pixar’s Oscar-winning “Ratatouille,” where he played Remy, a rat with culinary ambitions. It was a film chefs said revealed more about life inside the restaurant kitchen than any live-action movie before.

Then, in an epic 3 minute 26 second takedown on his stand-up album “Werewolves and Lollipops,” he riffed on KFC’s Famous Bowls, a horrifying mash-up of potato, popcorn chicken, cheese and gravy, and forever burned the phrase “failure pile in a sadness bowl” into the pop cultural psyche.Perhaps more than any comedian this side of John Cleese, Patton Oswalt is a gourmand through and through. His recent swing through Chicago for the Just for Laughs Festival was as much about performing stand up as it was a restaurant-hopping tour.We chatted with Oswalt in an all-food, no-comedy interview.

The Stew: Were you always this big of a foodie or did your palate develop when you were no longer a poor anonymous comic and could afford those meals?

Patton Oswalt: I didn’t develop the palate until I had the finances, probably around the late 90’s (around the time “The King of Queens” premiered on CBS). I remember the first meal I splurged on: the vegetarian tasting menu at Aquavit in New York City. And that opened the world of, “Oh, [the chef’s] personality is coming through in this,” rather than just working down calories. And that led me to follow chefs and their biographies and background.

How did you follow them?

I started reading magazines, websites, books, reading reviews when I go to a city. I try to read about the chefs I should go see and try out.

Did your appreciation of food grow after Ratatouille?

By the time I got to Ratatouille, I've been a very strong foodie for about a decade. But in getting to go to The French Laundry and meeting so many chefs, that opened a deeper insight into these amazing restaurants, and realizing it’s as much about organizing a team of people and personalities, or dealing with local building codes and producers and merchants. There are so many different levels to it. The more access I got, the more amazement and wonderment than when I was starting off and didn’t know the ins and outs.

What was Thomas Keller like?

I didn’t get to meet him until the Oscars at an after party. I’ve eaten at his restaurants — French Laundry and Per Se in New York — but he wasn’t there [during those visits]. It was really amazing to see him come in and have the chefs come out and actually want to cook him something, just so that they can say Thomas Keller tasted their cooking. That’s like watching Eric Clapton go into some tiny bar gig and have the musicians up their game because he’s around.

Do you get star struck by chefs?

I get star struck by a lot of these guys, the high end and the low. I’m just as amazed to meet a Marcus Samuelsson or a Thomas Keller as I am to meet the woman who makes the tacos at Yuca’s on Hillhurst (in Los Angeles). That’s all interesting to me, someone cooking from their heart, kind of a “I met you before I met you” sort of way.

It must have been gratifying to have chefs tell you Ratatouille’s depiction of a kitchen was spot-on.

I have a friend at Charlie Trotters and she said, “You really got the dynamics of the kitchen right.” Like how there’s always a pot of potatoes soaking. I heard that Anthony Bourdain was very impressed with us, which jazzed and tickled me to no end.

You even appeared on Emeril Lagasse’s show while promoting the movie.

He was terrific. I’d only known Emeril being ubiquitous on Food Network and on commercials, so I guess I had that kneejerk anti-[sentiment] in my mind, thinking, “Oh, this is just some corporate guy.” But then I was in New Orleans doing a movie and his restaurant was amazing. He’s an amazing cook. Sometimes things get popular because they’re very, very good. And he’s just a really charming guy. He really loves to cook.

Did that change your view about food on television?

Once something gets popular, there’s going to be an oversaturation. But there are good shows. Stuff like Alton Brown and Top Chef. America’s Test Kitchen is a great show, or Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservation. There’s always good shows amidst all the hullabaloo.

You grew up in Sterling, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. Is Sterling a hotbed of gastronomy?

Not that I remember, no. The population has since grown something like seven-fold and there’s a lot of immigrant communities moving in. From what I hear, there’s good sushi, good Chinese and Indian. Northern Virginia is a great wine growing region. There’s all kinds of great farms and produce, it just wasn’t being used for a long time, and now it is. There’s a place called Sterling Pizza and they did these rectangular Neopolitan pizza, in this mini mall in Sterling Park. We’d get pizza from them all the time and I remember that being really amazing. And there’s a place, I think it’s still there, called Hunan Lion or Hunan Dragon (editor’s note: there’s a Hunan Café), and it’s just your classic East Coast Chinese restaurant, with a little section with fried chicken and burger for the timid. I’m sure it was spiked with MSG, but man, some of my earliest Chinese food was inauthentic and I just remember it being delicious.

People might know you for your riff on KFC’s Famous Bowls. When you first heard of the Double Down sandwich (a bacon and cheese sandwich with fried chicken as buns), what was your reaction?

I was on a radio show in New Jersey. Someone called in and described it, and it was the same reaction as when I saw the commercial for the Famous Bowl, that I didn’t think it was a real thing. I don’t know if it’s this creepy symbiotic relationship, and not to sound self-aggrandizing, but now they’re doing stuff to spite me.

You know the Famous Bowl and Double Down are two of the best selling items at KFC, no?

Of course they are. Of course they are. They’re not dumb. They know how Americans eat. Americans are frightened and angry and depressed. So when that happens, start pouring salt, we’ll buy it.

You recently spent four nights in Chicago, and you documented your restaurant experiences on Twitter in some detail. Let’s talk about where you ate.

Thursday afternoon we went to Frontera Grill, which really blew me away. The fact that it was such a casual Mexican restaurant, but oh my God was the food so delicious. We sampled all the tacos, tried their guacamole, then I tried their coffee for dessert which was delicious.Then for dinner we went to Graham Elliot. Basically we just tried his menu. He had cooked for Brad Bird (director and writer of Ratatouille) and I when he was at Avenues, and it was a truly amazing meal. I don’t even want to say he stepped it up, I think he did what he does every night. The fact that this is his set speed is sort of astonishing. I’d love to see what he does when he tries to blow someone away. The pop rocks with foie gras lollipop ... oh God that was so good. The spring pea bisque with mint marshmallow ... that was one of my favorites of that night.Friday I took it easy during the day. I had to walk off those two meals. At night we went to Forest Park to Skrine Chops, which is this amazing barbecue place. God, that guy knows how to cook. Got the Skribs, which are these baby back ribs. He made great barbecue chicken, which he does so perfectly. It was sweet and spicy with this undercurrent of burntness to it, which I loved.Saturday we just sort of walked around, then before the show, we ordered from this place called Penny’s Noodles, which were dee-licious. I got the vegetarian rice noodles, had the right amount of light sauce. Someone got the beef noodles which I thought were a little too sweet, but the veggie noodles were right on.

You’ve got family in Oak Park and I hear you already have your next trip planned.

I’m gonna come back in December and I want to do Schwa. Everybody had raved about it. And if it’s open, I want to go to Next, Grant Achatz’s place. And I really want to go back to Moto. We went there last Christmas and we were blown away. It was like if Grant Achatz had a meth lab in his basement, he would open Moto. It was so much fun and so tasty.

There’s a camp of people who say molecular gastronomy is more novelty than taste.

I totally disagree. Molecular gastronomy is so much riskier and requires so much more technique. If it doesn’t taste good, then you’re screwed. At Moto, the food tastes so concentrated-ly good, that it’s gone beyond fad.

You’ve been to Alinea?

I’ve had the winter menu and the summer menu a couple years ago. I framed the summer menu, I swear to God. One of the best meals I’ve ever had. I felt like I had just walked away from one of the great seminal rock concerts of all time.

Tell me about the best meal of your life.

Right now, no. I don't have one. I’m feel that I’m too young. I’ve had meals that have been up there, but I wouldn’t have anything that was “best” yet. I’ve got my top five or six, but I’m gonna wait a few more decades when my palate is more refined.

In that case, what's in your top five so far?

The Alinea summer menu would be near the top. The vegetarian tasting menu at Aquavit back in the late 90’s would be up there. The 34-course meal at The French Laundry. This big New Year’s Eve dinner I put together at Andalu in San Francisco, nearly a perfect meal. And then, any number of nights I’ve had at Katsuya in Encino (California). Just amazing sushi.

What’s on your bucket list of food?

I wanna go to The Fat Duck and St. John’s in London, I want a guided stroll through a marketplace in Paris, to try stuff right there. Unless I get extraordinarily lucky, I’m never gonna eat at El Bulli. I would like to do five different menus at Next, that would be great to check off. Too many to name.

Anytime you go back home to Los Angeles, are there restaurants you must stop in?

One would be Tallyrand restaurant in Burbank, the turkey sandwich there. There’s a restaurant called BLD and I get the three-bean huevos rancheros, and then Providence on Melrose, and Loteria, a Mexican restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard. Just get any three or four random tacos there.

Have you ever had a chef bring out ratatouille?

No, I’ve never had a chef bring out ratatouille. But I’ve ordered ratatouille in a lot of different restaurants. And it’s a really tasty dish. I’m surprised it’s not more popular, especially with everyone so weight-conscious. It’s pretty much all vegetables. A chef has not brought me out ratatouille, and I wished they would.

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