Chef is a film about…well, a chef. Jon Favreau (who will always be Pete Becker to me) plays Carl Casper, head chef in a prominent LA restaurant. He was once the wunderkind of the food scene and the guy who gave him his first big review 10 years ago, is coming to review him again. We open on him excitedly planning meals and testing flavours, to busy and stressed to pay too much attention to his son, Percy, who lives with Carl’s ex-wife (warmly played by Sofia Vergara). His enthusiasm wanes when the restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman) forbids experimentation and new dishes and insists Carl serves the regular menu. This is a business, with regular customers who want consistency. Needless to say, Carl does what he’s told against his better judgement and the review is a spectacular failure. The review contains some personal attacks on Carl and, introduced by his son to the world of social media, starts a Twitter war with the reviewer. This all culminates in a gigantic meltdown in the restaurant (making Carl YouTube famous) and – inevitably – getting fired from his job.
Scarlett Johansson as the restaurant’s hostess (Or maybe head waiter? Sommelier? Who knows) with whom Carl has a (slightly implausible) relationship advises Carl to take this as an opportunity, to spend time with his son and to find a way to start over and be happy. Smart advice. Carl’s remarkably generous ex-wife, Inez, takes him on a trip with her and Percy to Miami, where he started his career. There she reminds him why he liked cooking in the first place and suggests he work for himself. She pulls some strings with her ex-husband (Robert Downey Jr.) and secures Carl an old food truck. His friend ? (the never-in-enough-stuff John Leguziamo) leaves the restaurant to join him and the two of them take Percy and the truck on a cross country, circuitous trip from Miami, back to LA.
Chef is not a film with many surprises. It’s a heart-warming comedy about friendship, family and food (especially food) that doesn’t try anything exceptional. It is however sweet, funny and completely mouth-watering. The food is filmed beautifully, making it look both attractive and good enough to eat. While Chef examines the artistry in food, the film also makes it clear that food is there to be eaten – the taste and the enjoyment to be had from it are just as important.
This film makes I think the best use of social media I’ve seen so far. Twitter, Facebook, Vine, YouTube – they’re all an integral part of the storytelling process. Percy displays the sort of tech savvy kids seem to have these days and helps turn the food-truck into a sensation. The strengthening and development of Carl and Percy’s relationship was one of the best and more realistic parts of the film. A father who isn’t really grown up, with a kid who’s wise beyond his years. It’s a classic combination that’s played genuinely.
I read a review that rather unkindly suggested that bombastic Robert Downey Jr. would have been a better choice for Carl, but I totally disagree. Favreau has the everyman quality that’s needed here, we root for him, we believe him. He is fallible, he screws up and he has to work really, really hard. You get the sense that Carl likes the hard work and the effort that comes with working as a chef. He appreciates that it’s a skill to be honed and developed and it’s a great moment when he passes that ideal onto Percy.
The film ties everything up a little too neatly; giving us a satisfying but not wholly believable conclusion. But I can’t really complain. It was a sweet, uplifting film with lots of shots of really awesome sandwiches. What more could you ask for?