Making a movie with a primary focus on food seems like setting yourself up to fail. Sure, food can have an aesthetic quality, a visceral appeal but what food is all about and what it…well, brings to the table, is the taste, the texture, the smells and sensations that a film can refer to but not properly translate. So movies about food are rarely about food and more about people. Chef is no exception but whilst it gets most of it’s plotting right it is the relish and aroma that stands out.
Carl Casper (Jon Favreau, also writing and directing) is a respected Head Chef rallying against what has become a five year long creative slump that has occupied the kitchen he manages. He’s happily divorced with a young son that he cannot connect with as he instead chooses to focus on his unsatisfying work. Sooner than later a top food critic gives Casper a poor review and everything changes when Carl, a technological Luddite, takes to Twitter of all places to vent his frustration.
From here, Chef follows a road map of tropes that leads the characters on a trip of redemption, enlightenment and fellowship. As trite as this might sound it’s a tried and true formula that works. Favreau’s style, unfettered and kinetic, help the character moments, which are prominent but remain just few enough to avoid overfeeding the audience on saccharine development to the point of sickening sweetness.
The balance is in the comedy as Chef finds its footing in gentle banter and shows that it doesn’t need to go dark to gain chuckles. Instead it merely provides enough set up for jokes to act as a palate cleanser. The side characters have the same characteristics as a good side, serving the meal as a whole without overwhelming it and although none of them are given much to do, it’s fun to see superstars such as Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson enjoy being ingredients rather than the sole spice and using the opportunity to run away with the production whenever they get the chance to appear.
The real allure of the dish is its tone. Visually the cinematography is fresh and light with utterly ravishing depictions of cooking ranging from the spectacularly glamorous to some carefully thrown together sandwiches. It is food porn, no doubt about, it but at least it’s food porn at its best. And audibly, Chef shows that it has a real meaty personality. From the scene stealing up-tempo cover of the soul classic Sexual Healing to less known material drawn from Havana nightclubs or indie rock set-lists, the soundtrack is varied but always appropriate and adds a real sense of texture to the movie.
Although Chef is a film that takes few risks it’s also a movie that rarely missteps. Bolstered by a strong (if arguably under utilised) secondary cast and boasting some of the most cavalier and heart-warming laughs of the year, the main arc will roll on without shocking or defying anyone’s expectations but the flavour driving Chef is entirely delicious.
Chef is Out Now in Cinemas Everywhere