Jon Favreau has long since proved that he is a guy who can do it all, but as the producer, writer, director and star of “Chef” (expanding to additional theaters on May 23) he has served up his most soulful film to date. In “Chef” Favreau stars as Carl Casper, a once lauded chef, who finds himself in a creative rut. When Carl finds his passion again and sets out to do something new and exciting with his menu, he is blocked at every turn by an owner with an “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude and a general hesitancy to try anything new. When the resulting tête à tête winds up with Carl out of a job, he gives in to his estranged wife’s frequent suggestions and launches a food truck, so that he might cook for himself, and perhaps reconnect with his estranged family while he’s at it.
It’s difficult to isolate one element that represents the best chef has to offer. That honor could easily go to the cast, the food porn of the highest order or the heartwarming story that surrounds them both. In this, “Chef” is a well-balanced meal, one that incidentally tastes great from top to bottom.
In addition to Favreau, “Chef” boasts a host of excellent supporting performances. John Leguizamo shines as Carl’s loveable right hand man, Martin. Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey, Jr. both pop in, in the ultimate, non-Marvel, Marvel reunion. Instead of bashing skulls Johansson acts as a sounding board for Carl and shares a palpable chemistry with Favreau that gives their scenes a spark. Downey, meanwhile, uses well-honed skills of embodying eccentrics to steal a few memorable moments as Carl’s ex-wife’s entrepreneurial ex-husband. Sofia Vergara, Dustin Hoffman, Bobby Cannavale, Oliver Platt and relative newcomer Emjay Anthony round out the rest of the stellar cast.
Then there’s the fact that “Chef” is positively mouthwatering. Bacon, grilled cheese, carne asada, andouille sausage, beef brisket, beignets and, of course, Cubano sandwiches, the main staple of the El Jefe food truck (see the recipe to the left from Roy Choi to make your own) are all lovingly and luxuriously prepared on-screen. The film lingers over bubbling bacon, melty cheese and succulent pork the way Michael Bay pans over scantily clad starlets in slow motion, and it’s incredible, albeit seriously hunger inducing.
While “Chef” is the story of Carl Casper rediscovering his passion and reconnecting with his family, it is also a beautiful celebration of food, not just as food, but as culture and as love. There is something lyrical and comforting about this simple story that resonates from every frame. Not unlike last summer’s “The Way, Way Back”, Jon Favreau’s “Chef” reminds us how great simple stories told well and passionately can be.