Le Chef is a delightful gem of a film, proving that French movies can be just as accessible as any Hollywood comedy. Godard fans have just run screaming from the room, but just because Le Chef is friendly to a broad audience does not make it unsophisticated. The film is so well written and acted that I found myself caught under its spell from the very start, despite a premise that provides no real surprises.
Jacky Bonnot (Michael Youn) wants nothing more in life than to be a chef. He idolizes the famous chef Alexandre Lagarde (Jean Reno), whose recipes he memorizes and emulates. Jacky's passion and attention to detail often get him into trouble, and he has difficulty holding down a job. With his girlfriend Beatrice (Raphaelle Agogue) about to give birth, Jacky takes a job as a painter at a retirement home. Unable to help himself, he insinuates himself with the kitchen staff and is soon making delicious meals when he should be painting the exterior of the building. By coincidence, Lagarde visits a friend who has him taste one of Jacky's dishes, a soup that happens to be one of Lagarde's own recipes. Lagarde hires Jacky on the spot as his sous chef. Lagarde risks losing his restaurant as a loophole in his contract will allow the sleazy owner Stanislas (Julien Boisselier) to fire him if he loses one of his coveted three stars, and the proud Lagarde must soon enlist Jacky's help in crafting a menu that will impress the food critics.
The story is nothing you haven't seen before, but the movie is so effortlessly charming that it doesn't matter. Most films shot in Paris make a point of highlighting the city itself, but here it is simply a place, and somehow that makes it even more appealing; it ceases to be a an icon of culture and history and becomes a real city where people live and work. The lead actors are quite good. Michael Youn imbues Jacky with such sincerity and earnestness that it's impossible not to like him. The best part of the movie is Jean Reno. Known for playing stoic characters like the assassin Leon in The Professional, here his gruff exterior hides a warmth below the surface that he has rarely shown in other roles. He is also very funny, and shares an easy chemistry with Michael Youn.
The main conflict involves Lagarde's adherence to traditional cooking techniques in a culinary world only interested in the newest trend, particularly that of molecular gastronomy. (I couldn't believe that this is a real thing, considering how much comedy mileage the film got from it; follow the link for an explanation.) One of the villains is an odious chef named Cyril Boss (James Gerard), whose restaurant Lagarde and Jacky infiltrate to spy on the competition. This is the only real misstep on the part of writer/director Daniel Cohen; the scene is funny, but so over the top that it doesn't fit with the rest of the movie.
That being said, the film is satisfying in nearly every conceivable way. One thing the film clearly demonstrates is a love of gourmet cooking, and anyone that leaves the theater without a desire to try some real French cuisine needs to reevaluate their priorities.