The camera slowly pans over freshly washed vegetables glistening in an expensive looking wooden bowl. Slabs of steak shine under the lights until thrown onto a hissing skillet. Fruits are sliced and diced so carefully and exact, you know your meal is in the hands of an expert. However, this isn’t Emeril Lagasse’s old show or The Barefoot Contessa, it’s a Jon Favreau movie.
Returning to his pre-big budget superhero movie roots, the Iron Man director’s latest movie follows a worn-down chef named Carl (Favreau) who walks from a cushy restaurant job because he’s tired of the same old, staid menu. In the process of his newfound creative independence, he seeks to reconnect with his son, and take on the critic who challenged his bland entrees. What Favreau has always done well he does again in Chef, and that’s creating a natural rapport among his actors. When he, Bobby Cannavale and John Leguizamo tell jokes in the kitchen, it wouldn’t have been amiss in any of the old kitchens I walked in and out of during college. There’s a camaraderie built in the trenches during lunchtime blitzkriegs or dinner rushes, and Chef captures that pretty accurately, down to the near cold-hearted replacement of a fallen (in the movie, sacked) chef by the manager.
Yet for all the cute father-son bonding and kitchen nightmare accuracy, there’s a little bit of cheesiness that permeates the dish in a sour sort of way. Chef Carl’s solution for independence is to forgo the brick and mortar restaurant and buy into the food truck trend. In order to get the word out about the fledgling business, Carl’s son Percy (adorably played by Emjay Anthony) takes to the wide world of social media. Social media becomes a bit of its own subplot between Carl arguing with the famous food blogger, their fight later becoming viral on YouTube, and Percy’s use of self-promotion. Tweets are sent fluttering into the sky with chirping noises, their use becoming more intrusive rather than a quiet addition, like the way text messaging is incorporated flawlessly into the BBC series “Sherlock”. After the first few chirpy tweets, you may snicker, but by the time that 10th tweet takes off to perch on the big Interwebs in the sky, you’ll probably groan.
I found another bitter note in Chef Carl’s reliance on ethnic dishes for inspiration. Before leaving the restaurant, he has his pals try a spicy Asian fusion dish and tells them he wants to begin cooking with similar ingredients. Later on, during a visit with his Cuban ex-father-in-law, he eats a Cuban sandwich that is so good (“authentic”) that it becomes the impetus for his foray into the food truck world. His truck is called “El Jefe” (“The Boss”) and serves mostly Cuban fare at the start, with medianoches and yuca frita joining the Cuban sandwich on the menu. On the truck, Carl sticks more with that “authentic” taste as opposed to remixing the dishes to be his own. The move feels little appropriative, as he takes it upon himself to bring these flavors to the masses. No mijito, the flavors have always been there in Little Havanas along the East Coast; you just never came to our restaurants. Now it’s “a new flavor” to be discovered and exported.
Favreau does carry a bit of the Iron Man days with him, sprinkling famous friends throughout his “indie” picture. We were one Pepper Potts away from making a non-canonical Marvel movie with Scarlett Johanson, Robert Downey Jr. and Favreau himself. Sure enough, those cameos have become a part of the marketing campaign to lure people to his non-superhero work. A shame, since much of the fun of Chef was watching every offbeat cameo interact with the world of cooking. It would have been braver, perhaps more interesting, if Chef wasn’t stuffed with celebs.
Let’s not forget about the food critic played by Oliver Platt, Ramsey Michael. Other than sharing a name with asshole TV Chef Gordon Ramsey, I sensed a little animosity towards his character. Michael is snobby in-person and vicious in text, and not given much context beyond “big mean critic”, with the term “blogger” thrown around as an insult here and there. Favreau appears less than subtly angry at critics who perhaps sabotaged Iron Man 2 and Cowboys and Aliens, and makes this critic his stand-in antagonist. As if to try and compartmentalize why a critic lashes out at the artists he supposedly loves, Favreau then has Platt’s character eventually explain that he looked up to Chef Carl once upon a time and really admired his work until he sold out. The movie gives Michael a neat ending, but it’s a crappy finishing course. Michael becomes human once he gives up his criticism to invest in Favreau’s career, not unlike food critic Anton Ego’s wrap-up in Ratatouille. It’s too much of a personal mess to properly clean up, and works against the story.
Chef is food porn with a gelatinous script and thinly drawn players propping it up. Characters are too simplified to be wholly believable. The film stars a rich cast of talented actors, giving us a tease of what could have been. Too long, yet too limited, the movie feels its length chugging along various highways and tangents. In the truck’s roadtrip back to LA, Chef Carl’s culinary ports of call only include Miami’s Cuban dishes, New Orlean’s Cajun cooking, and Austin’s world famous BBQ. There’s a sizable portion of the Southwest that was ignored, but perhaps including Mexican food would have incoporated one too many Latin dishes. Points to real chef, Roy Choi for training Favreau and pulling off some of the most succulent foodie scenes you’ll see in a movie this year. But with only great food porn to offer, Chef may lead you hungry for more.