Chef is a passion project for Jon Favreau, a return to his roots for the once independent writer, director and actor. Recently he has been making it big in Hollywood directing big budget blockbusters like the acclaimed Iron Man and the not-so acclaimed Cowboys and Aliens, but Chef sees him step back and go back to basics, directing and starring in a film almost entirely of his own creation.
Jon Favreau directs, writes and stars as Carl Casper, a Miami-born chef once known for being innovative but now being forced to cook the same classic food over and over in a California fine dining restaurant by his boss Riva (Dustin Hoffman). After the restaurant receives an unfavourable and harsh review on social media (okay, Twitter, and the film makes no attempt to cover the fact it’s talking about the social network) he replies, not realising it’s public, resulting in the sort of Internet spat that’s become common place nowadays. Carl, realising how stifled he feels, quits his job and confronts the critic in public.
All of this is very interesting from a character point of view, but when Carl decides to purchase a food truck and cook the Cuban sandwiches and street food of his past, bringing his son along for the ride too, it becomes a road movie. The film is not just about cooking now; it’s a celebration of music and culture. They travel to iconic US cities like Miami, New Orleans and Austin and experience live bands as well as cooking locally-oriented food.
It’s all done so enthusiastically it’s impossible not to enjoy it. Cooking looks fun thanks to a soundtrack of Cuban style covers such as Santana’s Black Magic Woman, and the food photography looks fantastic. The plot takes a backseat but it doesn’t matter, because spending time in the company of chef Casper, his sous chef Carl (John Leguizamo) and Casper’s son Percy (Emjay Anthony) are a joy. The chemistry feels genuine and unforced, and the same thing happens in the restaurant’s kitchen, where they are also joined by Bobby Carnavale (from Blue Jasmine). Chef really manages to nail the passion and excitement of the kitchen, so it’s a shame some other aspects don’t quite ring true.
Casper’s ex-wife is the stunning Sophie Vergara and his sort-of love interest and hostess at the restaurant is Scarlett Johansson. Casper is a really nice, charming guy, but this is the same school of casting that had people like Sharon Stone and, again, Sophie Vergara paying to have sex with John Tuturro in Fading Gigolo (Review here). It makes the film look a bit like a vanity project for Mr Favreau. Also, the ending piles on the sugar unnecessarily, resulting in a neatness which is uncalled for and doesn’t mesh with the rest of the film.
The other thing is the treatment of technology. On the one hand the film handles it well, demonstrating both the positives and negatives of Twitter, Vine et al. But Casper’s blindness to the technology, and his son being forced to explain it to him feel very Hollywood for a film which is defiantly not Hollywood. The film’s egregious promotion of Twitter also doesn’t seem in keeping with the indie spirit of the rest.
I can’t remain cynical for long though, because with its passion and wit, crackling script and strong supporting cast, Chef succeeds in serving up a dish of food heaven with a side of Family Bonding. Sometimes it’s easy to get bogged down in gritty thrillers and serious dramas and Chef is delightful escapism. It doesn’t come with any pretensions, but what it does it does well. Now, to figure out the recipe for Cuban sandwiches…
Chef is a film of two halves, but for once this is not a criticism. Part drama and part feel-good road movie, both parts work equally well, resulting in a thoroughly enjoyable if not entirely realistic experience. It could do with less product placement though.