In his amiable food comedy Chef, writer-director Jon Favreau stars as Carl Casper, the head chef at a well-established upscale L.A. restaurant. As the movie opens, he’s preparing his staff to receive powerful food critic and blogger Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt). Carl wants to shake up his menu for his illustrious guest, but at the last minute, he caves to pressure from the restaurant’s owner (Dustin Hoffman) and serves up his tired old staples. Ramsey responds with a scathing “what happened to this guy?” review that’s eloquent and catty enough to go viral on the internet. Carl privately admits that the review is right, but his wounded pride and a series of misunderstandings on Twitter lead to an ugly scene with him screaming obscenities at Ramsey in a crowded dining room.
It’s hard not to read Carl’s story as Favreau’s reflection on his own filmmaking career — the bean-counting owner yells at his chef, “You want to be an artist? Do it on your own time!” After writing the 1996 indie hit Swingers, Favreau parlayed its success into a prosperous directing stint in Hollywood that included Elf, the first two Iron Man movies, and the underappreciated Zathura. However, the critical and commercial flop of his 2011 blockbuster Cowboys & Aliens seems to have prodded him to go back to his more modestly budgeted roots, just as Carl eventually resurrects his career with a food truck. The gambit may work out better for Carl than it does for Favreau, but it still feels like something the filmmaker needed to do to regain his bearings.
This story could have easily been told in 90 minutes instead of the two hours that this movie takes, but I don’t mind the slackness so much. Nor do I mind the glorified cameo appearances by the director’s famous friends, even though the only one that pops is Robert Downey Jr. as an eccentric construction baron who carries on three different conversations with Carl at once before giving him his old truck.
I mind more that Carl’s conflicts with his 11-year-old son Percy (Emjay Anthony) are rather baldly contrived to fulfill story beats instead of arising naturally. Favreau isn’t that good with romance, either — neither Carl’s relationships with the restaurant’s hostess (Scarlett Johansson) nor his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) make any sense. Though this is a small point, it bugs me anyway: It stretches credibility that Carl speaks no Spanish even though A.) he’s worked in kitchens in both L.A. and his native Miami, B.) his ex-wife and closest friend are both native speakers, and C.) he apparently makes Cuban sandwiches better than any actual Cuban person.
Fortunately, Favreau’s skill with male camaraderie is undiminished, as Carl’s off-color banter with his subordinate chefs (John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale) crackles with the old Swingers energy. As a director, he captures the chaos and adrenaline and sweat of a high-end restaurant kitchen better than any other movie does. As an actor, he demonstrates considerable knife skills in an early scene when Carl slices a cucumber. Something nice happens, too, when Carl, having spent years keeping Percy away from his work, finally initiates the boy into his world, showing him how to buy the best plantains for tostones and eventually taking him along as a line cook while he drives the food truck back from Miami, stopping off in various cities to test out new dishes. Father-son bonding is new territory for Favreau, and he looks comfortable in it in a rewarding little scene when Carl gives Percy his own chef’s knife, along with various tips about maintenance and safety, and when he slyly lets the boy have a sip of his beer.
And then there’s the food. While drool-worthy food photography is never a substitute for good storytelling, it is nice to have, and Favreau and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau do some scrumptious work here. I seriously want the recipes for Carl’s beef with chimichurri, his berry dessert with caramel dust, and his stir-fried (udon?) noodle dish. (The dishes are created by renowned street-food chef Roy Choi, who gives a cooking demonstration in the movie’s closing credits.) Texas barbecue fans will appreciate the scene when Carl pulls into Austin’s Franklin Barbecue and buys four beautiful cuts of smoked brisket to be made into sliders and medianoches.
Yet all this isn’t just food porn. As we watch Carl make a grilled cheese sandwich for Percy by gently massaging the slices of bread into a buttered griddle, we see the care that Carl takes over his work, even for such a simple dish. Carl has lost his way, but you sense that as long as he finds joy in these small details, he’ll always find himself again. With Chef, Favreau holds out hope that the same will be true for him.
Starring Jon Favreau and Emjay Anthony. Written and directed by Jon Favreau. Rated R.