In Chef, the preparation of delicious food becomes a metaphor for a quest for meaningful life and love.
By Tim Jackson
Jon Favreau, who wrote and starred in the early Vince Vaughn comedies, Swingers and Made, went on to produce and direct the Iron Man franchise, among many other accomplishments. In Chef, he demonstrates he is still a compelling actor as well as skillful writer and director for small film. He plays Carl Casper, a gourmet culinary artist whose reputation is sullied by a negative review from a food critic named Ramsey Michel, played by Oliver Platt with his usual phlegmatic charm. Platt’s brother, Adam, is a major food critic for New York Magazine.
Lacking in social media savvy, Casper inadvertently tweets a scathing response to Michel’s review that goes global, inflaming their feud. He reaches out a second time, but once again his elegant menu is stifled by his boss (a tetchy Dustin Hoffman). So he quits to make his own damn meal for Michel. But pride and a hot temper prevail and, before he can serve the meal, he confronts the critic at the restaurant. Casper has a meltdown that is caught on patron cell phones and blasted across the blogosphere. Casper’s reputation is, well – pushed even further down the food chain. He eventually finds himself attempting to revive his reputation with a food truck, provided by the ex-husband of his own ex-wife Inez, a smarmy businessman named Marvin (an oily Robert Downey). Deciding to serve gourmet Cuban sandwiches, he gathers his kitchen staff, which includes his faithful and former sous-chef Martin (John Leguizamo) and his 10-year old son Percy (Emjay Anthony). The road trip takes them from Florida to New Orleans and back to Texas with Percy tweeting the whole trip, capturing everything with the ‘1 Second Everyday’ application on his cell phone.
This is just the set-up of the plot; the film’s real dividends are in the details. The idea for Chef came from Anthony Bourdain’s book Kitchen Confidential, where the author claims that he wanted his readers “to understand what it feels like to attain the child’s dream of running one’s own pirate crew – what it feels like, looks like, and smells like in the clatter and hiss . . . the strange delights of the language, patois, and the death’s head sense of humor found on the front lines, [for] civilians to get a sense, at least, that life, in spite of everything, can be fun.” The food is elegantly prepared and photographed, but the real delight of Chef is the pleasure it finds in dramatizing friendships. The preparation of delicious food, as in many books of the “culinary memoir” genre, becomes a metaphor for the quest for meaningful life and love.
Favreau moves his story forward without resorting to melodrama or embracing the usual plot clichés. With his status as a blockbuster director and producer, he has access to notable talent and uses it well. In addition to those mentioned, there are superb performances by Bobby Cannavale in full New Yorker mode, Amy Sedaris in an unrecognizable and brilliant cameo, and Scarlett Johansson as the hostess of the restaurant and Casper’s best pal. That particular friendship is very telling because it never veers into a ‘relationship’ issue. They love each other, but it is never made clear if they sleep together. What is clear is that Casper’s preparation of a meal for her one evening as she lounges on the bed becomes all the foreplay necessary for a seduction. It is as subtle and endearing as it is flirtatious.
Similarly, Casper’s relationship with his estranged spouse is not fraught with drama. I sometimes wondered if he was the kind of guy who would attract a woman as outrageously stunning and sassy as Sofia Vergara, who plays his ex-wife Inez. But master chefs these days are like rock stars. As played by the director, Casper is a man of great devotion, humor, and intelligence. You sense a real bond of affection between Casper and his friends, male and female. Luckily, those relationships don’t get mucked up with side plots. And Casper is an all-purpose foodie: he’ll sample a delicate slice of fine filet or chomp into a perfectly toasted grilled cheese with equal enthusiasm.
More than anything else, Casper adores his son, Percy, an endearing boy he shares with ex-wife. This is the central relationship is the film, and one that makes an powerful impression because of a remarkable performance by Emjay Anthony. Favreau, who started in improvisational comedy, has a knack for catching the rhythm of conversation, making his dialogue feel fresh and spontaneous. But to put his conversations across it takes actors who feel comfortable with their lines. I couldn’t find a false note in the young actor’s performance. Percy quickly becomes an essential part of the business, coaching his dad on the ways of social media, tweeting, blogging, and shooting the trip with his cell phone. He is the film’s heart and soul.
And there is more that’s tasty in this film. Besides the seasoned actors, a heaping helping of clever writing that plays with the technology gap between the generations and an evolving father-son relationships, and its layers of scrumptious cinematography and mouthwatering dishes, Chef is doused in Latino music. Scenes are galvanized by lively tunes from Pete Rodriguez, Courtney John, The Martinis, Liquid Liquid, Louie Ramirez, and El Michels Affair. With Vergara and Leguizamo cast in key roles, Latino culture pushes the film’s spirits to infectious heights. The ending may come as a bit of a jolt, and you may have to overlook a few plot contrivances and social media miracles, but these are snags worth overlooking. Chef should be compared to a well-cooked meal where the sum of the ingredients amounts to a joyous feast of a film.
Tim Jackson is an assistant professor at the New England Institute of Art in the Digital Film and Video Department. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, many recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed a trio of documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater, and Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups. His third documentary, When Things Go Wrong, about the Boston singer/songwriter Robin Lane, with whom he has worked for 30 years, has just been completed. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.