In Chef, Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) is a master chef working at a high-end Los Angeles restaurant. However, his workaholic habits – coupled with professional dissatisfaction at having to make nothing but popular, yet generic, dishes for his customers – have resulted in Carl getting divorced from his wife, Inez (Sofia Vergara), being neglectful of his son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), and often butting heads with his bottom-line driven boss, Riva (Dustin Hoffman). When a popular food critic (Oliver Platt) gives Carl’s most recent work an unflattering review, it taps into the latter’s neuroses; one thing leads to another, and soon enough, Casper finds himself without a job and his reputation shattered.
At Inez’ behest, the unemployed Carl accompanies his ex and Percy on a trip to Miami – Carl and Inez’ hometown. There, with assistance from Inez, Carl gets fixed up with his own food truck, which he decides to drive across the country back to California, while selling Cuban sandwiches along the way. With help from his friend and former co-worker, Martin (John Leguizamo), as well as Percy – whose knowledge of social media promotion comes in handy – Carl starts to get his groove back, in both his career and personal life.
Jon Favreau started off his filmmaking career with such cult indie titles as Swingers and Made, before he progressed onto making such popular mainstream offerings as Elf and Iron Man. However, he thereafter seemed to hit a wall (creatively-speaking), on the heavily studio-controlled genre blockbusters, Iron Man 2 and Cowboys & Aliens – meaning, there are obvious parallels between Carl’s story in Chef and Favreau’s own experience, working in Hollywood. Chef, which Favreau also wrote and directed, feels like a breath of fresh air in that sense, pulling double-duty as a charming and heartfelt tale about recovering one’s thirst for living, as well as an insightful – if myopic – meta-commentary on the modern experience of being a professional artist.
From a directorial perspective, Chef is easily Favreau’s most accomplished work since Iron Man. Food porn enthusiasts – and I use that term in the best way possible – in particular will appreciate the care and visual precision with which Favreau and director of photography Kramer Morgenthau (Thor: The Dark World) capture various footage of ingredients being prepared and assembled into edible concoctions – by and large creating a seamless impression that Favreau as Carl is, in fact, a master chef. (Note: You ought to stay for the film’s credits, for a fun behind the scenes look at Favreau being taught the art of cooking by real-life chef, Roy Choi.) Some of the other stylistic flourishes utilized by Favreau – travel montages, graphics/sound effects that show people Tweeting – aren’t as effective, though even those elements have something of a distinct flavor to them. (No pun intended.)
The Chef script by Favreau has a loose, but still defined, three-act plot structure, which allows the film to trot along at a pleasant pace, and also gives the cast a good deal of room for improvisation – with Robert Leighton (Now You See Me) proving to be mostly successful at cutting together the footage into a recognizable narrative. Favreau, the storyteller, isn’t oblivious to the realities of what it takes to start a business, nor what is required to effectively promote your work through online marketing, thought the Chef script definitely paints a best case scenario of both issues. The final result is that Chef winds up being fairly predictable with its trajectory – which isn’t at all a deal-breaker, since the real joy comes from the journey, not the final destination.
Favreau, as the film’s lead, helps in that respect. By casting himself as Carl, Favreau not only heightens the meta nature of Chef, but also make its protagonist an engaging presence – whose personality varies from charismatic artist with a rock-star mentality, to an insecure fellow just struggling to navigate his way in the modern world. Equally affable and pleasant is EmJay Anthony as Carl’s son, as are character actors John Leguizamo (Kick-Ass 2) and Bobby Cannavale (Blue Jasmine) as Carl’s peers. Similarly, Favreau lets Dustin Hoffman and Oliver Platt play more than the standard caricatures; instead of being greedy and/or resentful people, their characters are portrayed as simply being very passionate about, respectively, pleasing the masses to make money and holding art (here, the art of food) to a high standard. (There’s also a familiar Favreau collaborator, who makes an entertaining one-scene appearance.)
The female characters in Chef, by comparison, are more of a mixed bag. Both Sofia Vergara and Scarlett Johansson – playing his supportive ex-wife Inez and co-worker/friend with benefits, Molly – are certainly likable, though they aren’t given much to do besides cheer Carl on and marvel at his cooking skills. To be fair, though, had their relationships with Carl been allowed more onscreen development (and, thus, gained a bit more depth), this might not even be a problem. Beyond that, Chef is mostly a boys adventure, though a certain fan-favorite actress/author makes a funny cameo appearance, at one point.
At the end of the day, though, Chef is successful in fulfilling its ambitions – offering a pleasant cinematic road trip, which also works as a palate cleanser for Favreau the filmmaker. It’s not just an indie comedy that’s worth checking out in theaters, but also one that leaves you interested in seeing what the star/writer/director responsible does next – now that he’s got his creative mojo back.
Chef runs 115 minutes long and is Rated R for language, including some suggestive references. Now playing in the U.S. in a limited theatrical release.