Forgive me my metaphors but CHEF is an absolutely delicious creation, a nicely balanced recipe for entertainment: food, music, and family saga, peppered with a crash course on social media and just the right combination of stars to spice things up! Writer/director Jon Favreau stars as Carl Casper a chef who’s stuck in a dead-end kitchen, playing it safe under pressure from restaurant owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman) who insists Carl cook yesterday’s caviar.
The whole thing goes up in smoke when the hottest critic in L.A. (Oliver Platt) comes to dine and rakes Carl over the coals in a scathing review that makes mincemeat of his soulless food. (The film proceeds to feature one of the most satisfying rants at a critic ever delivered on screen!)
Carl is also having trouble keeping the home fires burning; he and ex-wife Inez (the ripely gorgeous Sofia Vergara) share custody of their young son Percy (Emjay Anthony) who is hungry for his father’s attention because dad puts most of his energy into his cooking. The whole thing comes to a boil one night when Carl tweets what he thinks is a private and heated message to said critic– igniting a viral conflagration!
What follows is a fateful trip to Miami that reconnects Carl with his creative juices. I am not a cook, but the food prep scenes, the choosing of just the right produce, barbecued meats, buttering the bread before grilling a cheesy “sandwich cubano” and watching as it reaches crispy golden perfection, had me salivating!!! The camera gets right in on the sizzle and heat, the aroma practically wafting off the screen.
Is it possible to yearn for life in a food truck? Sure–especially if John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale are along for the ride. Leguizamo as a sous chef on the loose is an earthy and hilarious kitchen compatriot on this journey to the center of one’s taste buds and passion. He also has a unique way with cornstarch(!) Scarlett Johansson, Amy Sedaris, and particularly Robert Downey Jr. add more texture in minor but memorable parts. And social media is appreciated here for the complex ingredient it is, depending on who’s cooking.
A road trip does ensue setting the stage for some truly tender, smart scenes of father/son bonding. The film somehow escapes being corny as it conveys simple wisdom about the basics: hard work, quality, mutual respect, and the rewards of doing what you love. As this happy band grooves down the highway and across the country to Marvin Gaye’s “sexual healing,” with lots of down home music along the way: country, blues, cuban– the film feels rooted in a sensual melting pot of feel-good camaraderie and a world where everyone’s at home.
For all that, CHEF isn’t perfect– the ending comes out of nowhere, too good to be true. It’s not as profound as BABETTE’S FEAST, not as tonally complex as BIG NIGHT, but I’d definitely put it on my list of favorite food movies–for its wholesomeness of intent, simplicity of ingredients, and authenticity of its performances. Yum.