Here's a tip before taking a seat at Chef, Jon Favreau's delectable return to indie filmmaking: Don't go in hungry! This mouth-watering, savory film is the most satisfying effort by Favreau since he made the leap to blockbusters, and marks a return to the charming small-budget comedies that made him popular to begin with. Remember when he was "so money" in Swingers? That was a long time ago, and it's probably safe to say that making all of those Iron Man movies and Cowboys & Aliens sapped him of his creative passion.
Whether Favreau admits or not, there has to be a kernel of reality to Chef, which centers on Carl Casper, a prominent L.A. chef at an upscale restaurant churning out boring, passionless food. But it hooks customers, which is all the eatery's owner (Dustin Hoffman) cares about. But Carl wants to make his own menu, and the malaise of his current rut is all over him and infecting the kitchen, where buddies played by John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale chew the fat more than they ever slice it. When a powerful local food critic (Oliver Platt) turns up expecting Carl's best and gets nothing but the same boring menu, it leads to a bad review that sends Carl into a tailspin.
“I would rather have you sit on my face after a brisk walk on a warm day than have to suffer through that fucking lava cake again.”
So no, it didn't go well at all. A total freak out at the restaurant is captured by the customers and becomes a Youtube meme; but that's not nearly as bad as Carl's fighting words over Twitter, which launches him into celebrity status. They also basically cost him his job and any chance of getting hired elsewhere. Somehow he's got to get out of this creative funk and get his groove back.
Carl also has to get his personal life in order, and that proves to be another major challenge. Chef is as much about father-son bonding as it is about food, with the crux of the heartwarming tale about passing on a family trade. The problem is that Carl is so pre-occupied with work that he barely knows his son, Percy (EmJay Anthony), who lives with Carl's spicy ex-wife, Inez (Sofia Vergara). The film really takes off as Carl finally decides to make chicken salad out of the chicken crap hand he's been dealt, deciding to open up a food truck paid for by another of Inez's exes (Robert Downey Jr. in arrogant Stark mode), and make the dishes he always wanted to. And in the process he gets to reconnect with Percy while hitting the road to some of his favorite spots and sampling the local eats. Who needs Disney when there are shrimp po'boys in New Orleans waiting to be devoured? Driving through Texas? Better stop and sample the local BBQ. Sure, it's a bit simplistic to say that a mere road trip and a ton of grub can repair a man's soul or fix a family, but if Favreau is too earnest it's made up for in sincerity.
From the very beginning Favreau strives to get across just how special cooking food really is, and how it touches the lives of the chef and those he's preparing it for. With meticulous detail Favreau takes us through all of the steps we can see on Food Network cooking shows, minus all of the obnoxious hosts. There's an emphasis on the process, the use of natural ingredients, stressing local homegrown ingredients that require a bit of nurturing. And even if the parallels to a father nurturing his son are squishy and sentimental, it's good to see a film that presents a positive paternal portrayal. Carl isn't a perfect guy, but he's perfect at cooking food and wants to impart some of that wisdom on his son. The finest moments come when Carl is imparting hard-learned lessons to Percy about treating the customer and the food with due respect.
But there are a few burned edges Favreau has to contend with. Once the road trip begins there are very few moments that aren't completely predictable. And at some point it does seem that Favreau totally gives up on the plot and decides to just photograph a bunch of grub. One can hardly blame him as it's all incredibly well photographed and looks so good you'll be making dinner plans before the credits roll. Shots are taken at Gordon Ramsey's Hell's Kitchen, social media, and food criticism as a whole, with Favreau getting out what seems to be a lot of pent up anger. Although to be fair it probably has less to do with cooking than with his frustration over the current state of the movie business. Some of that frustration comes through in his performance early on, only to settle down comfortably when it's time to impart some fatherly words of wisdom. The rest of the cast acquit themselves well, especially Leguizamo, Cannavale, and Vergara. Less convincing are Downey and Scarlett Johansson who feel like they are only around to do their Iron Man director a favor.
Chef is a simple film that uses the finest of ingredients. It's as comforting as a home cooked meal and just as satisfying.