Dir: Jon Favreau
Writer/director Jon Favreau trades superheroes for sweaty kitchens in the winning Chef, an ode to creativity and following your muse. Coming off the critical and commercial failure of 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens, it makes sense that Favreau would retreat to the smaller budget realm where he cut his teeth with his breakout hit Swingers. Imbued with a sunny disposition and a renewed sense of purpose, the unexpected part is how heartfelt and sincere the resultant Chef is.
Favreau not only scripted and directed, but he’s the lead as well – head chef Carl Casper. A former wunderkind first discovered in Miami but now plying his trade at a popular high-end Los Angeles eatery, Casper’s professionally successful but at a personal cost exemplified by his failed marriage and distant relationship with his son. Cooking is the passion he’s sacrificed so much for, yet he’s become complacent even in the culinary realm – worn down by time and the controlling hand of his boss Riva (a surly Dustin Hoffman). The last straw comes when Casper is forced to cook a pedestrian menu for influential food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt). Michel is wholly unimpressed and Casper is introduced to the wonders of social media at the exact wrong time, allowing the conflict to escalate wildly. The resultant impact forces a dark night of the soul upon Caspar as he re-evaluates his priorities.
It’s impossible for anyone with a cursory knowledge of Favreau’s career to not see the autobiographical elements in this basic setup. After experiencing the giddy highs (Elf, Iron Man) and critical lows (Iron Man 2, the aforementioned Cowboys & Aliens) of the rigid blockbuster system, Chef proves to be a low-fi return to form about re-igniting creative passion , made by someone doing the same. The personal connection serves the movie well, as Favreau’s filmmaking hasn’t seemed this engaged in years.
Along for the ride are John Leguizamo as Martin, Casper’s loyal sous chef, and Sofia Vergara as Inez, Casper’s civil ex-wife. Favreau even calls in some Marvel movie pals (Scarlet Johansson as a kindly front-of-house manager and Robert Downey Jr. as Inez’s other ex-husband) to pinch hit. At the centre of the story – and tied to Casper’s artistic revival – is the rehabilitation of the relationship with his son Percy (an effective Emjay Anthony). What could be cloying is instead well paced, although the pieces of the puzzle fall together too easily as true conflict is occasionally lacking.
The set-pieces of the film are cooking sequences that are staged with verve and knowledge, and are some of the most impressive seen on film lately. A particular highlight is when Casper lovingly prepares an ultimate grilled cheese for his son. After losing his job and finding himself utterly rudderless, Casper finds solace in his passion and shares it with those closest to him; a simple metaphor that impresses with its clarity and execution. The sandwich also looks damn tasty (Roy Choi, progenitor of the modern food truck, acted as a consultant on the food and cooking). Chef also takes the form of a road movie in its latter half, with on location filming in Miami, Texas, and most notably, New Orleans. The various locales keep the film barreling along and provide novel backdrops to set Casper’s growing food truck business against, while the fiery spirit is conveyed through Latin samba and blaring brass trumpets accompanying sizzling flattops and searing planchas.
Chef never looks or feels cheap, but it is small and scrappy like a pugnacious boxer punching above its weight. Infused with bright locales and performances, it’s a heart-warming tale that skirts the saccharine but mostly pulls back. A too pat ending threatens to minimize the hero’s journey, but Chef remains infused with soul and wit. Favreau has shrugged off mediocrity and fought back strongly, crafting a paean to the creative spark that should strike a chord with anyone with fire in their bellies and a hunger for more.