I regret to say that my mom was never a great cook, even good cook would be a stretch. And while my stepmom whipped up a mean scallop pasta dish every once in a while, the fabled variety of “home cooked” meals on that front were pretty few and far between. No wonder that I found such affection in the arms of my girlfriend’s parents back in my formative years. Those stay-at-home moms sure knew how to plate up an amuse bouche that would amuse my bouche (if you know what I mean.) And in those meals, I found magic, and a love for food that has expanded my waist-size by an unmentionable amount (I blame you too beer.)
A good home cooked meal is like nothing else. No fancily plated, truffle-shaven, Emerill Lagasse “BAM!” chow can really touch a good meal cooked with (oh god, I’m gonna say it) love. And even though Jon Favreau has a tendency to indulge in Food Network levels of food porn, he cooks up this good-natured story with an abundance of love. On the surface, Chef is a movie about food, family, and forgiveness but the undertones of artist’s passion are equally raging.
Favreau’s passion is movies. He spent his formative years in the warm embrace of indie comedies as a writer/producer/director, crafting such cult classics as Swingers in the bosom of Hollywood’s furtive underbelly (where the meat is fattiest and most flavorful). Quickly earning himself a name around 90027’s water coolers, Favreau become a hip name and he was handed increasingly larger projects (including Elf and that movie no one saw, Zathura.) The one consistency through his admittedly checkered career was his unchecked fervor for the movies.
His passion even extended to the first Iron Man movie (still regarded as one of Marvel’s greatest hits) but there was a dimness to Favreau’s beady eyes after the studio-domineered, ultimately lumpy Iron Man 2 and the unfairly reviled Cowboys & Aliens. Chewed up and spat out by Hollywood, his creative tank had made its last round in the 100 million dollar tentpole ring. And all for the best.
In Chef, Favreau plays Carl Casper, a chef stifled by his boss’s gluttonous need for consistency. Once regarded as a revelation to the world of trend-hungry foodies, Casper’s settled into the “high-stress” epoch of LA living, complete with gaudy farmer’s markets, high-rise villas (and armies of maids) and the 21st century equivalent of the invisible hand: social-media-mania.
When Oliver Platt, as Anton Ego-type food blogger Ramsey Michel, announces he’ll be reviewing Casper’s restaurant, Casper dreams up a whole new menu to wow his would-be critic. Enter old white man in a suit and tie, Riva (Dustin Hoffman), waving his dollar bills around and demanding that nothing changes (EVER!!!) Riva even tugs at Casper’s ego, mustering up memories of adoring patrons and telling him to stick to “his greatest hits.”
Dumping the buckets of fresh food nuggets he’d scooped up at the farmer’s market (with his shaggy-haired, iPhone-poking kid in tow), Casper plays the hits and the esteemed critic all but gags. In his review, he blasts Casper for his uninspiring cuisine, calling him a fallen star, a comfortable hack, a five-star lackey. Then he sneaks in a jab alluding to Casper being fat. Low blow. Casper takes the review with all the grace of Mel Gibson getting pulled over and proceeds to sully his name via the magical powers of social media. Ignorant to the fine working of Twitter, he lands himself in hot water like a lobster in a Maine July (mmm lobster.)
With his reputation in tatters, Casper takes to the food truck business, abandoning the high brow pretense of Zagat-rated dining for the salty allure of grilling up badass sandies.
A fresh coat of paint and four wheels later, El Jefe’s- a namesake taken from the tats on Casper’s knucks (not shown, his apparent jailhouse stay) – is Casper’s artistic expression reborn. There may not be anything inherently artful about a mean Cubano but he unloads passion into that pork sandwich like a man with 20-years of blue balls.
His faithful line cook Martin (John Leguizamo) joins his quest as does his estranged son Percy (Emjay Anthony), making way for some great comic dynamics and tactful “let me show you, son” dramatics. What follows is a surprisingly funny and heartfelt journey through the bowels of homeland America as Favreau’s Casper earns back his good name.
In a way then, Chef is autobiographical. It’s Favreau’s comeback, his gravestone dance, his rightfully derelict musings on his own Hollywood arc, all spelled out in tasty, food-based metaphors. What could be more delicious?
The five-star restaurant forcing him to replicate old menus until it’s tasteless and tired is the recklessly antiquated studio system, the taco truck the creativity-stoking warmth of independent film. In this reading, Chef is sneakily subversive. It’s about the extinction of dinosaurs, about bull-headed industries beckoning their own collapse. It’s a big ol’ middle finger to the studio system.
Sure, Sofia Vergara is impractically hot to play the pudgy Favreau’s ex-wife and lil’ Emjay Anthony may be a scrubbed-out, impossibly dimpled, angelic stereotype of “perfect white son” but it works. It works well. Between serving up a healthy dose of masturbatory chow as centerpiece, Favreau crafts an indelibly personal story. Armed with a bitchin’ chef’s knife and an apron for a plate of armor, his pot shots at “the man” are clean and clear but the familial saga will leave you strangely fulfilled. This is feel good dramedy for adults, a rarely served platter of real heft, spiced up with zesty gags that will leave nothing short of a good taste in your mouth.
Hoffman’s suit of a boss likens Casper to a Rolling Stones show; “Imagine if you paid for a ticket and they didn’t play Satisfation?” Well, Favreau’s film slyly retorts, had Mick Jagger kept playing Satisfaction, the Stones would have never released Sticky Fingers. Chef is Favreau’s soulful Sticky Fingers.