One of Chef's most memorable scenes is Jon Favreau making a sandwich for his son. Generous layers of cheddar are nestled between two buttered rectangles of sourdough, carefully placed on a griddle until their sizzle signals their doneness. There’s a satisfying crunch as his knife cuts through the bronzed slices, cheese seeping like molten from their sides.
Here’s the thing: I barely consume dairy.
That, in a nutshell, is why you shouldn’t watch Chef hungry. If it could make my make my practically-vegan palate salivate, imagine what it would do for the meat-loving moviegoer. From close ups of juicy, falling-off-the-bone brisket and succulent slabs of bacon to steaming golden coils of spaghetti and airy nuggets of sugar-dusted beignets, Chef is an undeniable feast for the eyes, if not an entirely satisfying meal for the viewer with a bolder appetite.
Here, Favreau returns to his indie roots in his first endeavor as writer/director since 2001’s Made. Starring as Carl Casper, he plays an ambitious yet stifled head chef at an upscale L.A restaurant who, despite his desperate desire to cook outside the box, is forced by his boss (Dustin Hoffman) to dish out the same menu night after night.
When the redundant offerings (not to mention Casper’s “dramatic weight gain”) are verbally chewed out by veteran food blogger Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), Casper starts a Twitter account to state his beef with Michel’s review. But his angrily defensive tweet—intended as a private message—is posted publicly; a social media feud is ignited and explodes in an in-person outburst, captured in a video that (obviously) goes viral and costs Casper his job.
What looks like a dead end turns into a glimmer of opportunity: at the urging of his restaurant-hostess friend (Scarlett Johannson) ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) and her ex-husband (Robert Downey Jr.),** Casper starts a food truck and takes to the road. Thus begins a journey that allows him to not only indulge his culinary whims but also bond with his son Percy (Emjay Anthony), who joins in as sous-chef along with Casper’s former coworker Martin (John Leguizamo).
The cast list reads like Favreau’s personal phone book, with buddies from previous projects over his almost twenty years in showbiz making token appearances and then disappearing. At moments, it’s easy to get distracted from the plot as you wonder which A-lister is going to show up next. But that’s not to say that the actors don’t deliver. From his notable knife skills and heavily inked arms to his impressive girth we can easily be convinced was part of “preparing for the role,” Favreau clearly relishes being Casper. He essays the chef/father duality so fluently that you can’t help assuming that Casper’s struggle to maintain a balance between career and family is Favreau’s written confession of his own challenges as a working actor with three children. His chemistry with his on-screen son is effortless and gives the film its most solid plotline, Anthony himself being a rare young find who wins you over with his completely unaffected talent. Together with Leguizamo, the three forge a lovable bromance as they drive cross-country. As Percy's Latina mom, Sofia Vergara doesn’t quite step out of her Modern Family zone, but it’s refreshing to see her display some restraint here. Robert Downey Jr. has his classic over-the-top moments, but performs them with characteristic charm. Scarlett Johansson remains firmly mediocre but she’s on screen for a total of maybe 7 minutes, so her overall impact is negligible.
It’s the movie’s predictable narrative beats that do compromise its effect, at times falling short in believability or plain oomph. With its emphasis on humble beginnings as well as second chances, Chef is an ideal feel-good film and, judging by the tender reverence with which Casper extracts a perfectly roasted pork from an oven, a welcome reminder to do what you love even if it goes against the grain.*** But a bit more rawness and a slightly grittier depiction of Casper’s struggles during his period at rock bottom would have lent the plot a greater air of realism. Once he is dramatically removed from his job, all it takes is a brief spell of moping, a pep talk from his curvaceous coworker, and an especially delectable Cuban sandwich to rekindle his confidence and ambition. From the funding to the cooking to the marketing of his new venture, the upturn is suspiciously obstacle-free. I’m no expert, but I doubt one needs to be Roy Choi to realize that running a food truck is no joke. It’s difficult to swallow that two men and a 10 year old can pull it all off without considerably more nervous breakdowns. Sure, it’s “just a movie,” but even still, Chef makes it all look way too breezy.
What it (thankfully) doesn’t do so easily, is blast critics. Favreau could have easily used the film as a vindictive rebuttal against reviewers he’s been stung by in the past. Yet, Chef nobly suggests that there is as much a space for critics as there is for the people they write about.** Sure, there are the obnoxious few who use their profession and their subjects as punching bags for their snark. But reviews aren’t always gratuitously belittling diatribes; as Chef implies, honest evaluations are not only often spot-on, but can be much-needed wake-up calls for a career boost, attitude adjustment, or leap of faith.
More than just food porn, the film delivers both the hearty and healthy message of following one’s dreams. Yet, some areas are a little overcooked for my liking. Well-intentioned and comforting, Chef is occasionally too much sugar and not enough spice. But, given my insatiable sweet tooth, I devoured it without much fuss.
*Don’t worry, we’re still talking about Chef. Not Iron Man 3. Chef.
**I particularly appreciate this, y’know, seeing as how I’m aiming to do this for a living.
***Sorry. Food puns are my weakness.