There’s so much to like about Chef, Jon Favreau’s return to small-scale film making after several years of working on big budget extravaganzas such as Iron Man and Cowboys and Aliens, that it’s hard to know where to start. On one level, it’s a celebration of food and food preparation as an art form. The film is also a look into the lives and interactions of chefs and those who work with them, both in gourmet brick-and-mortar restaurant kitchens and the burgeoning food truck industry, which is beginning to take hold all over the U.S. Take a step back, and you can also see Favreau possibly using cooking and the professional and personal challenges of being a chef as a metaphor for being a film maker in today’s marketing savvy, bottom-line driven Hollywood.
But at its heart, Chef is a simple, intimate story of rebirth and reconnection between a father and his family, his creativity, and his own sense of self. Like a truly great gourmet dish prepared with heart and imagination, it’s many, many flavors blending together into something remarkable and worth experiencing.
Chef Carl Casper (Favreau) is the culinary genius behind the success of Gauloises, an elegant, L.A. high-end eatery, which for a decade has enjoyed booming business and non-stop reservations thanks to Carl’s creations populating the menu. But Carl himself has lost his way: he’s divorced, he has a hard time spending time with or even communicating with his son Percy (Emjay Anthony, TV’s “Rake”), and he feels his ability to be creative in the kitchen being stifled by Gauloises’s owner, Riva (Dustin Hoffman), whose only interest is keeping reservations booked and tables full every night. Riva doesn’t want Carl experimenting and tinkering with the menu — it’s Carl’s hits, as he refers to them, that keep people coming in and coming back for more.
The contest of wills between Carl and Riva comes to a head on the eve of Gauloises getting a visit from Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), one of L.A.’s most noted food bloggers, whose reviews can make or break even the most popular and established of restaurants and restauranteurs. Carl plans to wow the critic with an all-new menu, but Riva orders him to stick to the regular menu, and the results are, predictably, disastrous. Ramsey writes a witheringly snarky review blasting the restaurant and Carl in particular, which sends the already-frustrated Carl into a tizzy. What follows is a hilarious and uniquely 21st-Century cautionary tale about the dangers of waging war on social media, as Carl and Ramsey exchange colorful verbal jabs and challenges on Twitter, resulting in a public in-person confrontation between chef and critic in front of a packed house at Gauloises. Within hours, the episode has played out in front of the world via YouTube video, and in the span of a week Carl goes from respected, world-renowned chef to unemployed viral sensation, internet meme, and pop culture punchline.
It’s only at this lowest of low points, however, that Carl can find the opportunity to take back his creativity and control over his life. With a little help from his best friend and trusted grill chef Martin (John Leguizamo), his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) and Percy, Carl makes his way back to putting his heart and soul into cooking food he believes in, and doing it in a place he swore up and down that he wouldn’t: the confines of a food truck.
Before Jon Favreau established his epic-scale action movie cred by directing the original Iron Man, the film that effectively launched the Marvel Studios financial juggernaut superhero franchise, he was best known for supporting comedic roles on-screen and for Swingers, the 1996 indie comedy he wrote and starred in with Vince Vaughn and Heather Graham that has become one of seminal “hipster” comedies of the 1990s. If you were a fan of that film back in the day, or its informal follow-up, 2001’s Made, which was also Favreau’s directorial debut, than it’s a sure bet you’re going to love Chef. Above all things, it’s savvy, smart, and genuine, with believable, relatable performances from every member of the star-studded ensemble. It helps that the conflicts and personal challenges Favreau’s character faces throughout the film — familial disconnection as a result of divorce, stifling of creativity in the workplace, answering the question of “what next?” after an unexpected job loss — are all aspects of adult life with which audiences should have some experience and connection. In having Carl take on those difficulties in the way that he does, Favreau makes Carl into a very effective and likable everyman, and because he’s so likable, it’s easy to see why the other characters gravitate toward him and are a part of his world.
The rest of the cast here all bring something fun and memorable to the production; in particular, Leguizamo, who gets some of the film’s funniest lines speaking in both English and Spanish, and young Emjay Anthony, who gets a lot of screen time with Favreau as Casper and Percy get to know one another again and bond as Casper teaches his son not only how to cook, but how to cook with heart. But arguably, Favreau’s most important co-star in this film is the food Carl prepares so lovingly in just about every scene, and so please take under the advisement the suggestion that you have a satisfying meal before going to watch Chef, as otherwise you will without a doubt exit the film famished as though you hadn’t eaten in days. Favreau, director of photography Kramer Morganthau (Thor: The Dark World), and production designer Denise Pizzini (Like Water for Chocolate) each do their part to deliver a film that visually conveys the craft and the art of preparing food that brings all the senses to life and turns dining into an unforgettable experience, rather than simply a necessity of continued existence. They also bring to audiences a viewing experience that’s as close to being in a kitchen with a master chef, whether that kitchen is in a high-end establishment or on wheels parked on a street corner, as any you might find on reality TV cooking shows or competitions. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself making mental notes while listening to Carl teach Percy the finer points of making the perfect Cuban sandwich, or salivating and wanting a bite as the characters taste the results of their work to be sure it’s ready for the public. Yes, it looks that good.
In regards to what other message Favreau might be wishing to convey through Chef, whether the film is, in fact, his way of indirectly chronicling his own creative struggles while working for a major film studio, crafting movies off of someone else’s production agenda with the studio’s marketing priorities ever-present and at times intrusive in his work, and his need to get away from that for a little while in order to get back in touch with his own creative instincts, is a level of interpretation that need not be recognized in order for audiences to enjoy the film. Suffice to say that there are enough parallels and commonalities between cooking and film making to make the comparison a natural one. If you see Chef and you want to read that autobiographical subtext into what plays out on screen, there’s certainly enough there to support that reading, and it adds just another level of cleverness and depth to the viewing experience.
But if, on the other hand, you care nothing for such interpretations and just love a good story about fathers and sons, about family and doing what you love with love, and about great food, then you’re sure to enjoy Chef just as much. It’s as satisfying a movie experience as we’ve had in theaters in 2014 so far, in every way except that the film makers don’t actually provide viewers with actual food to satisfy the inevitable cravings the film will inspire.
Score: 4 out of 5
Starring Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson, Oliver Platt, Bobby Cannavale, with Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Downey Jr. Directed by Jon Favreau.
Running Time: 115 minutes
Rated R for language, including some suggestive references.
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