Chef is a delight.
It also includes the best food-related insult I’ve heard in a long time: “amuse douche”.
Jon Favreau is always great at finding a through-line of humanity in his movies. The entire Marvel universe has him to thank for that, in fact — he took a cocky, (literally) heartless jerk like Tony Stark and gave him grounding and vulnerability, which set a template for the next 10–50 years of MCU films. While Joss Whedon nailed The Avengers, I don’t think that Jon Favreau gets enough credit for kicking the whole thing off.
That humanity shines through in 2013’s Chef, which was written, directed by, and stars Jon Favreau. Favreau plays Carl Casper, a driven head chef at an upmarket restaurant in California. He receives a scathing review from online food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) and after tweeting at him and then butting heads with the owner of the restaurant, Carl walks out.
Later Carl lets loose at Ramsey in a video which ends up going viral online, and his time as a chef seems over. But then Carl takes up an offer to start a food truck. Free from the demands of a high end kitchen, Carl has the chance for a do-over. In his own life, in his relationship with his son, in his relationship with his ex-wife, and as a chef.
As well as the topline plot of a chef who has spent too long focused on his job, there’s an undercurrent of a career-driven, but perhaps slightly out-of-touch man learning about where the world has moved on to. When you’re completely focused on one thing it can be hard to keep up and self-improve, and it all comes at once to Carl Casper. Following the one bad review, he gets a crash course on modern reviewing, on social media, on news cycles, and on the world outside his kitchen.
While it’s cringe to watch at first, I’m sure that every chef who has been on the receiving end of a negative review felt some kind of catharsis during Casper’s diatribe against Ramsey the food critic. It’s everything a person who has been reviewed badly has felt, uncorked.
The plot is on the predictable side — there aren’t any twists and turns here. A career driven man learns what really matters in life. He starts a new business and succeeds in it. That’s my one big criticism, that the story just kind of… is. Fortunately, while the plot is fairly flat, everything else around it shines.
When the film starts moving, it really brings to life the joy of cooking and the tremendous influence it can have on people. Once the food truck was firing, and Carl, Martin, and Percy were slinging sandwiches, I was grinning from ear to ear. The food truck isn’t just Carl’s way to dig himself out of a rut, it’s a way for him to reconnect with the people he loves.
The performances are solid across the board — including Emjay Anthony, who manages to pull off a “I don’t want to show that I care but I really do” kid perfectly. But John Leguizamo might be my favourite in the whole movie. Leguizamo has an effervescence that doesn’t work in every movie, but in Chef he brings every scene he’s in to life.
While the plotting is lackluster, the production makes up for it. There’s so much amazing food filming, from high end dishes to toasted sandwiches. I can imagine it being used as a reference for every food-based advertisement in the foreseeable future.
And more than anything else, Chef really nails the music. I’m a sucker for a good Latin or Cuban beat, and the movie delivers in spades.
Chef isn’t deep, or intricately plotted, or saying anything especially new. But it’s uplifting and funny in a way that suits its low budget and “back to basics” feeling. It’s feel-good, and it left me feeling good.