In his latest film, Chef, Jon Favreau taps into the zeitgeist of America’s current food culture—a world where chefs and bloggers are rock stars and Twitter can make or break careers. But underneath all the razzmatazz of carefully crafted food scenes lies a sweet story about a man trying to straighten his life’s bearings while reconnecting with his young son.
A detailed and entertaining romp through kitchen life, Chef proves once again that Favreau’s a major triple-threat in Hollywood: He wrote, directed and even stars in the film, despite his non-cookie cutter, leading-man appearance (of which his character is reminded several times throughout the film).
Chef Carl Casper (Favreau) is at a personal and professional crossroads after 10 years helming the same kitchen at a tony Los Angeles restaurant. No longer a young hotshot chef, Carl finds himself in a rut and attempts to get creative with the menu, much to the displeasure of the restaurant’s controlling owner, Riva (Dustin Hoffman). After he receives a scathing review from a top blogger/food critic, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), for cooking the regular menu, as ordered by the restaurant’s owner, Casper’s life spins further out of control.
He hears talk about his food on social media, so with the help of his doting 10-year-old son Percy (a terrific performance by up-and-comer Emjay Anthony), Chef Carl opens a Twitter account. The bad review has gone viral—and in thinking that Twitter @reply is a private message, the newbie inadvertently starts a flame war with the blogger. It escalates over the Internet, so Casper publicly invites the critic back for the meal he wanted to cook in the first place. Riva quashes the idea and orders the chef to cook the “greatest hits.” Casper quits—but he doth not go gently into that good night. He has a public meltdown, decrying food critics and their work, while at the same time hilariously demonstrating to Ramsey what exactly makes a chocolate lava cake “molten.” His momentary lunacy, of course, is immediately posted to the web.
With the encouragement of his ex-wife, Inez (an understated performance by Sofia Vergara, which is a good thing), Casper joins her and Percy in Miami, where his culinary career first began. Ostensibly, he’s there to take care of/bond with Percy while she’s taking business meetings, but Inez has also arranged for Casper to meet with her ex-husband (Robert Downey Jr.) ,who has an old roach coach for sale. Though he’s only in the film for about five minutes, Downey—who worked with Favreau on Ironman—brings the charm, smarm and a lot of laughs to this scene.
In Miami, Carl’s joined by his loyal sous chef (John Leguizamo), and they, with the help of Percy, refurbish the truck and turn it into El Jefe—a food truck specializing in Cuban sandwiches and platanos. In their road trip back to Los Angeles, the three stop in New Orleans and Austin, two gastronomic capitals, adapting the local cuisine to their truck’s offerings. (The music also changes as the truck travels through the country, and kudos to Favreau for including extended screen time to a Gary Clark Jr. performance.) Percy, who’s learning the life of a line cook while spending much-needed time with his dad, draws crowds by geo-tagging and posting photos and videos to Twitter and Vine. Chef Carl is once again cooking from the heart, while learning that sometimes the spice of life isn’t always edible.
Favreau’s attention to detail in Chef is commendable, and much of it is due to the coaching of one of the film’s co-producer’s, Roy Choi, the Los Angeles-based chef who’s credited with starting the food truck craze with his Kogi BBQ trucks. Choi’s influence is palpable, from the way Favreau holds his knives to his garnish choices to the tattoos that decorate Chef Casper’s arms, much like Choi’s own. Casper is a man-child, as are many of today’s star chefs. He’s by no means a perfect father, or even close-to-perfect adult. As a chef, he’s confident and insecure at the same time, making him an interesting and real character to watch. While the other characters aren’t as fully developed (Hoffman’s character is clearly the bad guy and Leguizamo’s meant to be the fun-loving, loyal assistant, etc.), the stars bring their A-game to Favreau’s lively script that alternates with hits of humor and pathos at just the right times.
There’s a grittiness and seamy side to the kitchen culture that’s not often examined, not even on “reality” TV shows like Hell’s Kitchen with Gordon Ramsey. (In one of Chef’s meta moments, Inez’s PR consultant, played by an overly tanned and just as overly hilarious Amy Sedaris, suggests that Casper take the reigns at Hell’s Kitchen after his much-talked about YouTube meltdown.) The film’s kitchen staff likes to cuss, party and drink together after shifts, smoke weed behind the restaurant and sleep with each other. (Casper is casually dating the restaurant hostess, played by Scarlett Johansson.) While their personal lives may be a mess—Chef Carl lives in a dump in Venice while Inez and Percy take the mini-mansion—the food always has to be perfect.
The cooking shots in Chef are sure to please any foodie; in particular, there’s one scene in which Casper is making a deceptively simple grilled cheese sandwich for his son at home. The close-up shots reveal the painstaking lengths to which a real chef—as well as a director—will go to get even a grilled cheese (shot) just right.
A caveat before seeing Chef: Do not go to this film hungry—consider yourself warned.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.
Starring: Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, Emjay Anthony, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jr.
Release date: May 9, 2014