Best of 2021 (Behind the Scenes): Meet the chef who taught Nicolas Cage how to cook like a pro in Pig

While the trailer for Pig suggested something like John Wick with Nicolas cage and a swine, the film ultimately revealed itself to be an even stranger beast. The prolific actor plays Rob, a former Portland-based chef who, it’s slowly revealed, abandoned the world of haute cuisine after his wife’s death, becoming a reclusive truffle hunter with only a foraging pig for company. When his beloved animal is kidnapped, Rob ventures back into Portland in pursuit, but these revenge-thriller trappings soon give way to a poignant meditation on life and loss, culminating in a dinner that recalls the climactic moments of Pixar’s Ratatouille more than anything else. Here, Portland chef Gabriel Rucker, credited as a “food consultant” on Pig, details his involvement with that very special meal.

“I thought someone was f—ing with us, to be honest.”

It’s an understandable reaction to any attempt to summarize Pig, and even more so in response to a cold email asking you to get involved with the movie. But once it became clear that the offer wasn’t a joke, Gabriel Rucker was only too eager to serve as a food consultant on the Nicolas Cage-starring indie.

“I grew up watching Raising Arizona, The Rock, Con Air, you name it,” says Rucker, owner and head chef of the French bistro Le Pigeon in Portland, Ore. “It was a very easy ‘yes’ to be involved in a movie with Nicolas Cage.”

Nic Cage in Pig

Courtesy Neon Nicolas Cage serves pan-roasted squab in ‘Pig’

Rucker’s job on Pig — the first movie he had ever worked on — consisted of two main responsibilities: designing a dish for the movie’s climactic sequence, and teaching Cage how to look like a professional chef on camera. For the former, he had some guidance from the filmmakers on what they wanted, which happened to fit perfectly with his own tastes (so to speak).

“Essentially, what they wanted was [the style of] Portland in the ’90s, and I just jumped to the food of Le Pigeon when I first opened in 2006, which was simpler and more rustic than it is now,” Rucker recalls. “And as I read about Nic’s character, it reminded me of what cooking in Portland in the early 2000s was like. If you were overly pretentious, you would get laughed out of town.”

Additionally, “I thought not just about the plate of food, but about how it would look to be made by an actor,” the chef continues. “I thought, what’s a dish that can reasonably be made in this kitchen, in this house, where there can be some movements that are going to be interesting?”

The meal he settled on was pan-roasted squab, chanterelle mushrooms, pommes Anna, and huckleberry jus, a blend of Rucker’s own French style and a certain Pacific Northwest touch. “Pigeon, or squab, is a chef’s piece of protein; it’s something that the industry folks really gravitate towards,” he explains. “As cooks, as chefs, that’s something that we always enjoy eating and cooking. And also, it’s [set in] Oregon, and we’re known for our mushrooms here. [Cage’s character] is a truffle hunter, but the director said truffles were a little bit too cliché.”

As Rucker notes, the dish’s components also provided opportunities for Cage to show off some “romanticized movements” in the kitchen: cleaning the mushrooms, slicing the potatoes with a mandoline, and butchering and basting the squabs, for example. The actor visited Le Pigeon’s kitchen to prepare for the scene — “the best part” of the process, in the chef’s view.

“He was dressed for the role, and I didn’t really know how f—ed up he was supposed to be [for the movie],” Rucker says with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Did this guy have the craziest bender last night and then roll out of bed and come and have me show him how to cook?’ But he’s a very, very respectful person. He was like, ‘I looked into you, it seems like you’re a very respected chef. This is great.’ And he listened to what I said, he asked questions, and he was very engaged.”

Nicolas Cage and Gabriel Rucker

Nicolas Cage and Gabriel Rucker

Courtesy Le Pigeon Gabriel Rucker (right) helps Nicolas Cage prepare for ‘Pig’

Among other techniques, Rucker taught Cage how to break down and cook the pigeon — “It’s a French technique where you sear it in oil, and then you add garlic and thyme and you put a pat of butter in there for a foaming butter baste,” the chef explains — and some basic cooking tips like how to wield a knife properly. “You can easily look like a novice just by the way you hold the knife,” says Rucker.

The chef later joined the cast and crew on set to supervise the filming of the scene, even getting to direct a bit of it himself. “It was a lot of [advising on] how to tilt the pan and things like that,” he recalls. “There’s a pretty close-up shot of him spooning that foaming butter over the pigeon, and I made sure that that really went over well, because to me, that’s like the iconic shot of the food.”

Nicolas Cage and Gabriel Rucker

Nicolas Cage and Gabriel Rucker

Courtesy Le Pigeon Nicolas Cage and Gabriel Rucker on the set of ‘Pig’

Rucker also organized the kitchen “in the way that I would do it if I was cooking at home,” he says, and plated the food for “the beauty shots of the dishes.” Unfortunately, as is often the case on movie sets, no one really got to enjoy the food once it was done.

“I don’t think that [the actors] really dug in too much, because the food was prepared, and then it kind of sat there for quite some time,” Rucker recalls. “But you don’t go into that being like, ‘This dish is my pride and joy.’ The number one thing is, it’s gotta look good. I know I can cook tasty food, but making something that can look good for 45 minutes, that’s the skill you need cooking for movies.”

The chef remains proud of the end result — “Nic looked good on screen!” he says — and to have been part of a film that showcased his home city and its culinary scene so well.

“If you leave out the underground fight scene, I feel like it was fairly realistic as to what it’s like in Portland,” Rucker says with a laugh. “There’s no underground crime syndicate that’s running the truffle business in Oregon, that I know of. But I do think that they did the city proud, and that makes me happy.”

Nicolas Cage and Gabriel Rucker

Nicolas Cage and Gabriel Rucker

David Reamer Chef Gabriel Rucker and Nicolas Cage

But what stuck with Rucker most about making Pig wasn’t meeting Cage, the Portland element, or getting one of his dishes on a movie screen. His best friend David Reamer, a food photographer, “is a die-hard Nicolas Cage fan — he even has the woodpecker tattoo from Raising Arizona,” the chef says. “So I asked if he could come and shoot some pictures when we were [working in the kitchen], and he was just in heaven. It was the greatest thing for him.” Then in February, before Pig was released, Reamer was diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer and died.

A few months later, “I went and saw the movie with my wife and a bunch of the people that worked on it,” Rucker recalls, “and my buddy’s name was in the credits. He got to have his name in the credits as a photographer on this Nicolas Cage movie, and that, to me, really wrapped things up and made the experience so memorable and worthwhile. He didn’t get to see it, obviously, but I know what that would have meant to him. And, you know, we were best friends, so we talked a lot of s—, and his f—ing name was in the credits before mine. And guess what? I couldn’t be happier.” Chef’s kiss.

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Best of 2021 (Behind the Scenes): Meet the chef who taught Nicolas Cage how to cook like a pro in Pig

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