A gifted chef who has moved from Miami to Los Angeles, Carl is intent on cooking an exciting, new menu for the critic, but his boss has other ideas. Their restaurant is very successful with the more conservative menu they cook, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Carl cooks the more conservative dishes and promptly gets blasted professionally and personally by the critic for his lack of creative cooking. After engaging the blogger on Twitter, Carl, ultimately, has a very public meltdown in the dining room that leads to him losing his job but gaining an intense amount of YouTube notoriety.
Unemployed with no real options, Carl travels to Miami with his ex-wife Inez (Sophia Vergara) and his 10-year-old son Percy (Emjay Anthony, giving one of the best child actor performances I’ve seen in a long time). Once in Miami, Inez’s ex-husband Marvin (Robert Downey, Jr.) gives Carl a broken-down food truck, and Carl’s sous chef Martin (John Leguizamo) makes the trip to South Florida to help out.
Cooking for other people has burned Carl out artistically, and the food truck allows him the chance to work from a place of creative passion again. It also allows Carl a chance to reconnect with his son. As is often the case in American society, Carl has chosen to deal with his unfulfilled work life by doubling down and working harder, shutting his son out in the process. With the truck ready to roll, Percy joins Carl and Martin on a third act road trip back to Los Angeles. This involves stopovers in vibrant food and culture centers New Orleans and Austin.
Chef is a complete delight from top to bottom. Favreau, the director, has called in some favors and rounded up a great cast. Oliver Platt, Bobby Cannavale, and Scarlet Johansson show up in supporting roles. It’s warm with a lot of solid laughs, and the father/son stuff is touching without ever being cloying or overly sentimental. The movie is fairly light on plot, so it may be a touch too long, and a sudden story development in the film’s final scene was unnecessary and unearned.
Los Angeles-area chef Roy Choi (also one of the film’s producers) was involved in every dish seen on screen, as well as the menus and the cooking technique on display. The film has an immediate sense of restaurant culture that gets it just right, and the film delivers Big Night-level food erotica. There’s a scene at a Texas barbecue joint where the sight of four smoked brisket made the audience I saw it with audibly moan.
When Chef opened the film portion of the SXSW Festival back in March, word on the film was that is was a crowd pleaser but lacking in depth. Look, it’s certainly not 12 Years a Slave, but I think it’s way too dismissive to suggest that Chef lacks for subtext or thematic richness. In many ways, Chef is an indirect sequel to Favreau’s breakout film Swingers. Made nearly 20 years ago, Swingers (Favreau’s first produced screenplay) was all about young guys on the make. They were trying to get the girl, but they were also trying to break into their career fields; remember, they were all struggling actors and comedians. Chef takes place nearly 20 years later, and, while it doesn’t literally contain any of Swingers’ characters, it does deal with entering middle age and coming to terms with how life decisions have landed the characters in the places they are. How do you balance your passions in life with the real need to earn a living? How do you balance the demands of your job with your responsibilities as a parent? How do you navigate the necessary compromises life requires without losing yourself and your art along the way? These aren’t exactly lightweight questions.
There’s no question Chef is a very personal piece of work for its filmmaker. Favreau began his career in the independent film world. Hell, he even produced an excellent television series for IFC called Dinner for Five in which he and four other people with indie backgrounds would get together, share a meal, and talk shop. (The series is currently available on YouTube and very much worth seeking out.) In recent years, he’s been directing a lot of big-budget studio films. In fact, I would argue he hasn’t gotten nearly enough credit for successfully launching Marvel’s cinematic universe by really nailing the tone of Iron Man and fighting to cast Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark. I could definitely see how directing Iron Man 2 and then later Cowboys and Aliens could make a guy question himself. Iron Man 2 had the unenviable task of shoehorning a bunch of exposition about S.H.I.E.L.D. into the mix. Cowboys and Aliens was probably never going to work as a film anyway, although I still argue the first act plays really well before the screenplay takes a dive. It’s highly possible he made the best possible version of Cowboys and Aliens that could have been made.
Chef opened in New York and Los Angeles this weekend and goes wider in the coming weeks. In this summer movie season, it’s easy for some of the more modest gems to get lost in the shuffle. Seek it out. It’s worth your time and attention.