By Melissa Agar
Chef (Open Road Films, 2014) - Director: Jon Favreau. Writer: Jon Favreau. Cast: Jon Favreau, Robert Downey, Jr., Scarlett Johansson, John Leguizamo, Dustin Hoffman, Sofia Vergara, Oliver Platt, Amy Sedaris, Bobby Cannavale, Emjay Anthony, & Gloria Sandoval. Color, 115 minutes.
Is it just me, or does it seem like our culture is becoming increasingly obsessed with food, specifically the preparation of food? There are whole channels devoted to watching people cook. Even network television is populated with chefs scrambling to put a gourmet spin on meatloaf while an accented expert screams profanities at them. Film is no different. The past several years have introduced several films featuring beautiful shots of incredible looking food prepared by highly attractive people … or a Parisian rat. And now, with Favreau’s delightful Chef, we can add another chapter to the growing book of cinematic food porn that populates our cultural landscape.
Written and directed by Favreau, Chef tells the story of high-profile chef Carl Casper. Once a golden boy of the Miami restaurant scene, Casper has spent the past several years in LA running the kitchen of an upscale restaurant owned by Riva (Hoffman). While Carl yearns to shake things up and try new dishes, Riva encourages his chef to stick with the cuisine that has people booking reservations. When Ramsey Michel (Platt), a critic who once championed Carl, writes a review accusing Carl of being complacent and dull, Carl responds with a challenge that ultimately leads to a very public (and much-tweeted) confrontation of the critic and his removal from the restaurant’s kitchen. With his career seemingly in ruins, Carl accepts an invitation from his ex-wife Inez (Vergara) to accompany her on a trip to Miami along with their 10-year-old son Percy (Anthony). All of this is revealed to be a two-part ploy – to encourage Carl to return to cooking via a food truck and to help revive his struggling relationship with his son. Soon, Carl and Percy are refurbishing a food truck along with line cook Martin (Leguizamo) and serving up Cuban sandwiches to the denizens of South Beach. The trio hit the road to return to LA, stopping along the way in New Orleans and Austin and incorporating the local cuisine into their truck.
While on its surface, the film seems to be about cooking (and there are some glorious shots of incredible looking food that left me salivating), there is more to it. As Carl moves away from the glamour of LA haute cuisine, he rediscovers what it was about cooking that initially drew him to the field. He sees cooking as an art, his passion, and by getting in touch with basic, simple American cuisine – like Texas barbecue and poor boys – he’s able to reignite that passion. He’s no longer stuck behind glass, completely removed from the people for whom he’s cooking. He’s now face to face with them, serving them directly. The lessons we can take from Chef extend beyond how to tell when your grill is hot enough, and deal more with reigniting our own passions. We need to remember why we do the things we do and what we love about the things we do. By getting back to basics, Carl finds that love and rejuvenates his career and his life. He is able to share that passion with his son, building a relationship beyond his visitation day trips to the movies. Father and son are talking, learning about each other, teaching one another, and building the real relationship that Percy craves.
Perhaps this same lesson applies to Favreau himself. After launching his career with charming independent films like Swingers, Favreau has spent the past decade or so directing Hollywood blockbusters with varying degrees of success. While he brought an intelligence and wit to the Iron Man films (he directed the first two), he’s also responsible for the pretty abysmal Cowboys and Aliens: a film that, like Carl’s restaurant offerings, seemed eager to please but ultimately left audiences underwhelmed. There is a lightness to Favreau’s writing, directing, and acting here that hasn’t been visible in years, and the result is a film much like Carl’s Cubans – crispy, zesty, and absolutely delicious.
There is also a reminder here of all that has made Favreau such a likable screen presence for the past 20 or so years. Chief among that is his crackling chemistry with just about anyone with whom he shares the screen. The heart of the film lies in the relationship between Carl and Percy, and Favreau allows that relationship to grow slowly. There is awkwardness in Carl and Percy’s early scenes – Carl is clearly a dad who doesn’t quite know how to relate to his child without the filter of his marriage. As the duo work to launch the food truck, the bond grows and the audience’s investment lies largely in the tender and funny way Favreau and young Anthony work together. It seems organic and real with Anthony never resorting to the sort of cloying mugging so many child actors are encouraged perform onscreen. He’s a terrific young talent.
In a packed blockbuster landscape, Chef is a small film that deserves some attention. There are no explosions or special effects (though Favreau does his own impressive knife work). It is the perfect summer counterprogramming for adults – smart, funny, and ultimately tremendously entertaining. Just make sure you eat before the movie or else your stomach will go crazy at the sight of all the amazing food being prepared onscreen. (I seriously found myself swooning over a close up of the most incredibly looking grilled cheese I have ever seen!)