"I'll tell ya, Mrs. Ferris, I'm the worst cook in the world," the titular Lieutenant Columbo opines in the first non-pilot episode of the 1971 series. "But there's one thing I do terrific — and that's an omelet. Even my wife admits it."
With his rumpled trench and perpetually mussed hair, Columbo (Peter Falk) looks a little sloppy. This is both part of his appeal — as "Saturday Night Live" cast member Sarah Sherman put it in a recent episode, "Hachi machi! An old guy with a loose eyeball and resting cigar face?!" — and his investigative method.
Over the course of the 69-episode series, snooty criminals (entitled playboys, wealthy wine collectors, over-confident mystery writers) and their accomplices consistently underestimate Columbo's abilities as a detective because of his presentation, typically to their detriment. However, there's a lot underneath the occasionally slovenly surface — something they would maybe recognize if they watched Columbo in the kitchen, specifically the way he makes an omelet.
In the episode, he's in a kitchen belonging to Joanna Ferris (Rosemary Forsyth), the wife of a man who has disappeared and is suspected to be dead. Columbo had seen her wandering through the police station, shell-shocked. "I'll bet you haven't had anything to eat . . ." he remarked.
The next time we see him, he's whipping eggs in a big, metal mixing bowl. While still wearing his trench, he proceeds to crack a few more eggs (one-handed!) and quickly slice an onion with ease.
This isn't some bumbling rube. This is a man who has it together.
"Honestly, I'm not hungry," Joanna says as she watches him grate a block of cheddar.
"Well, at least you'll have a taste," he replies. "The secret is just eggs, no milk . . . I could use a skillet."
There's actually a long pop culture history of men making omelets on-screen. Through the years, the deceptively simple dish has come to symbolize precision, restraint and care — and often the intersection of these virtues. That's why it's not particularly surprising that media — film to television — features an omelet-making scene early on. It's character-building through cooking.
Take, for instance, the first episode of "Only Murders in the Building." Viewers watch as Charles-Haden Savage (played Steve Martin) stands over his stove and flips an omelet, delicately laced with chopped bell peppers, with ease. In the original network script, the scene is described like this:
At his stove, Steve uses those peppers we saw him buy to make an incredible omelette, displaying a chef's familiarity with this — but he's clearly in his head.He looks out his window at the apartments overlooking the courtyard. Is a killer out there? His omelette complete, he routinely slides it . . . INTO A TRASH CAN. Steve stares at that garbage . . . in the plastic bag. New thought.
The note about the character executing the dish with a "chef's familiarity" is interesting. Much like roast chickens and a good vinaigrette, omelets are one of those foods that are almost fetishized for their simplicity. They require very few ingredients, so the success of these dishes is largely dependent upon the skill of the chef. When I (and millions of other people) think of the chef most closely associated with omelets, I think of Jacques Pépin.
"I feel that if Jacques Pépin shows you how to make an omelet, the matter is pretty much settled," Anthony Bourdain once said. "That's God talking.
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That's been the case since Pépin stepped into the KQED test kitchen in 1995 and showed the country how to make an omelet. "If I had to judge how good technically a chef is, I probably would ask him to do an omelet," the chef said, grinning gamely at the camera in a pristine dark green apron. In just under five minutes, Pépin walks viewers through the steps of making the classic French omelet: the cracking, the whisking, the folding.
In a beautiful appreciation of the segment, Joshua David Stein wrote the following for TASTE:
And at the end, when he slices open the classic omelet to reveal quivering curds —"curd" in his accent, always singular — and a nice jazz piano riff comes in (the work of a local Bay Area pianist named Mike Greensill), one is moved in a way omelets rarely can. One is emotional. Why? Because as it turns out, Jacques Pépin isn't teaching us how to make an omelet. He is giving us a lesson in epistemological certainty. This is what it is to know something so profoundly that the knowledge flows from you effortlessly, like water.
Pépin has discussed this phenomenon in interviews.
"You have no choice as a professional chef: You have to repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat until it becomes part of yourself," he told The New York Times in 2011. " I certainly don't cook the same way I did 40 years ago, but the technique remains. And that's what the student needs to learn: the technique."
Watching Charles from "Only Murders," it becomes clear that he is an analytical character, one who is deeply entrenched in his routine. The skill with which he makes that omelet indicates that he has repeated it, over and over again — though why exactly that is takes a little while to reveal. Viewers come to find out that the omelet had been a favorite of his ex-girlfriend's daughter, Lucy, with whom he had a close relationship.
As Pépin said, perfecting an omelet takes commitment; Charles' continued, regular practice shows how committed he is to his friendship with Lucy, even if he and her mother aren't together anymore.
The continued use of omelets as a motif in television and film is interesting, as well, because it's distinct from a lot of the foods that are traditionally associated with masculinity — barbecue, meat and potatoes, and backyard grilling. A lot has been written about how, culturally, men are only expected to perform domesticity in very particular ways. Typically, in the case of cooking, it involves big hunks of meat and an open flame.
However, technique-wise, omelets require a more gentle touch. That's one of the reasons filmmakers lean on it for character-building: something about watching a man make an omelet definitely softens some rough edges. (As I write this, I feel like there are dozens of rom-coms that feature men making omelets in a sun-dappled kitchen for their new lover, but after a cursory, I'm not sure if that's because I've actually seen it or if just feels like something that should make its way into a script).
The writers of "The Old Man" — an FX series that features Jeff Bridges as a spy who absconded from the CIA and has lived off-grid for decades — played with this in the first episode of the show. Bridges' Dan Chase is on the run and needs to convince the female owner of his vacation rental that he and his two accompanying Rottweilers are trustworthy. Though he doesn't specify if it's going to be an omelet, it's unsurprising that he quickly offers to make her some eggs when she stops by for a visit.
My favorite scenes featuring men making omelets, however, are actually the ones that really emphasize how an omelet exists at this unique intersection of softness and precision. One example actually comes from the Disney film "Ratatouille." I know, I know, Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) is a rat, but he is both male and a great cook, so please allow me this.
After Remy stays the night with human line cook Linguine (Lou Romano) for the first time, he gets up early to make Linguine an omelet. It turns out beautifully. Obviously, there's an element at play here of Remy attempting to convince Linguine to allow him under his chef's hat and into a professional kitchen. But it's clear from the scene that Remy is also trying to communicate — without words, obviously — to Linguine that he cares for him.
They've got a big day ahead of them, and an omelet is appropriate fuel.
This mirrors the final, incredibly poignant scene from "Big Night," the 1996 film that stars Tony Shaloub and Stanley Tucci as Primo and Secondo, brothers who have immigrated to 1950s New Jersey and own a struggling Italian restaurant. After the titular big night doesn't go as planned, the brothers are faced with the reality that they are going to have to make some difficult decisions — both about their business and their relationship, which has become increasingly strained under stress.
That all looks incredibly jarring in the harsh light of early morning, but Secondo walks into the pristine restaurant kitchen, adds a slick of olive oil to a skillet and proceeds to crack and whisk eggs with a chef-like precision (that, unlike in the case of Columbo and Charles, is actually fitting). Once cooked, Secondo places two portions on plates: one for him and one for their lone employee, Cristiano (Marc Anthony).
He and Primo had argued the night before, so Primo is initially a little tentative entering the kitchen, but Secondo silently slides the remaining third of the omelet on a plate and hands it to him. The brothers eat silently, their arms across each other's shoulders.
It's just a plate of eggs, but here — and throughout film and television history — it says a lot.