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.