A word of warning first of all. Do not go to see Chef on an empty stomach. Don’t go even if you are the slightest bit hungry. Really stuff yourself before you arrive at the cinema.
I would also steer clear of anything from the concession stand before finding your seat. After a few seconds of the onscreen food orgy that begins the film, and lasts its duration, you will look down at the air-filled, sugary, overpriced trash that you just spent half a week’s wages on and be disappointed in the extreme. Consider yourselves warned.
Actor and director Jon Favreau doesn’t look like he has missed a meal in his life and his warm-hearted, comic and refreshingly simple indie film is an ode to the artistry of cooking and the passion that visionary chefs have for their work. It could not be further removed from the million-dollar bells and whistles and explosions of the almighty Iron Man series for which he is more commonly known – other than being one of Monica’s boyfriends in Friends of course. Favreau’s lead character undergoes somewhat of a renaissance during the film and perhaps the same can be said for the director himself.
There is more to the story than being an extended episode of MasterChef, though, I assure you. Favreau plays Carl Casper, a culinary genius who is stuck in a rut and thwarted creatively by the demands of restaurant owner Riva – a cameo for Dustin Hoffman, who serves up the angry, frustrated, it’s-my-money-so-do-as-I-say restaurant owner efficiently. He does not allow his chef to let his creative juices flow, forcing him to stick with the tried-and-tested menu that has brought in the punters for years on end. And therein lies the problem.
Casper sees beauty in the creation of food and considers himself to be an artist, cooking food that he believes in. Food can bring back long-forgotten memories, conjure up places visited many moons ago, prompt the audience I sat with to make “mmm” and “aah” sounds repeatedly and is a passion to be passed down from one generation to the next.
So when forced to cook the ‘safe’ menu for esteemed LA food critic Ramsey Michel – played with just the right arrogance, pomposity and venom by the wonderful Oliver Platt – Casper does not receive the rave review he is expecting. Michel calls Casper out for selling out, which awakens the bear. A Gordon Ramsey-style meltdown later, his rant has ‘gone viral’ and he is the laughing stock of the Twittersphere. This is a world which Casper’s emotionally neglected 10 year-old son, Percy (Emjay Anthony- a very likable and confident young actor), is familiar with and something he is able to teach his old man. Son teaches dad about social media, dad teaches son about food and the things he loves and so they begin to bond… You get the idea.
I’ve kept the food metaphors to a minimum until now but feel I should throw a few in for good measure. If Favreau is the steak, then John Leguizamo (Martin) and Bobby Cannavale (Tony) are the sauteed potatoes and steamed vegetables. Right, and left, hand men to Casper in the kitchen, the ease of their quick repartee and unspoken understanding at all times is the mark of three true friends and the actors carry this off effortlessly.
Favreau’s character may not have had the creative control in the kitchen that he desired but as director he was able to cast Sofia Vergara as his extremely pleasant and supportive ex-wife, Inez, and Scarlett Johannson as part-time lover, Molly. Tip of the cap to you, Mr. Favreau. Having said that, the mouth-watering, close-up food preparation montages are more seductive than either of the women.
Finding himself out of work and rudderless, Inez urges Casper to join her and Percy on a trip back to their roots in Miami where the couple met and he burst onto the scene as “El Jefe” – Cuban chef extraordinaire. He purchases a beaten up taco truck from Inez’s first ex-husband, Marvin – an amusingly intense cameo performance by Favreau favourite Robert Downey Jr – and then embarks on a cross-country odyssey back to California, with son and best friend Martin, not Marvin, in tow.
The road trip element of the film adds to its lively, carefree, summertime feel. The three boys discover the different sites, tastes and flavours of Miami, New Orleans and Austin as they head west – all recorded, Facebooked and tweeted by marketing guru, Percy. Like their speciality cubano sandwiches, the dialogue is a little cheesy at times but this is a feel-good movie and you just have to embrace it. How could you possibly criticise two grown men singing ‘Sexual Healing’ at the top of their lungs? I certainly couldn’t.
Another minor criticism is the pacing of the film, which is a little slow and its running time a little long but I was more than happy to go along for the ride. How many films will you see that feature Gary Clark Jr. playing the blues to a biker gang in his Texan hometown? Not many.
Chef will inspire and please because it is a film about going after what you believe in. Like the local farmers market that you visit once a week it treads familiar ground – a fallen hero come good, father making amends with son, friends on a road trip – but the produce is funny, fresh and organic nonetheless. You will leave the cinema with a smile on your face and a longing for your next meal.