Film: Chef
Directed By: Jon Favreau
Starring: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara, Scarlett Johansson

Driving home from my screening of Chef, I briefly considered writing one of those fun little reviews filled with more cheesy food puns than you can shake a drumstick at. I could knock it out in 15 minutes. You’d chuckle a few times. And we’d all go home happy. But you know what? You’re not going to get that here. Rotten Tomatoes tells me there are plenty of other sites for that anyway.

Instead, I’m just going to be honest. I’ve had a shitty couple of days. I was in need of an escape. From my apartment. From my mind. When most people feel this way, they go to the gym. Others, to the bar. Me? I go to the movies.

So the film I stumbled into was Chef. I didn’t know if the damn thing was supposed to be any good. Hell, I didn’t know much about the movie at all. But my options were limited, and I’ve already seen enough Spider-Man movies to know that wasn’t the sort of thing that was going to shut out all the noise that was creeping its way into my head. What I got with Chef was a reminder of why I love movies and continue to do what I do, no matter how difficult or discouraging the rest of my life may be.

Chef is a beautiful example of art imitating life. Jon Favreau is probably best known at this point as the director of the first two Iron Man movies and (to a lesser extent, deservedly) Cowboys & Aliens, but Chef marks a return to a more modest level of filmmaking for a man who started out writing and directing micro-budget features like Swingers and Made.

Ten years ago, Chef Carl Casper (Favreau) received a great review by an important food critic (Oliver Platt) and was given the keys to the kitchen of a high-end Los Angeles restaurant. Chef has money, the respect of his employees, and enjoys casual intercourse with the ridiculously hot hostess (Scarlett Johansson) after work.

When the same food critic who championed Casper a decade ago announced he’s coming through to review Casper’s restaurant, Chef has plans to impress him by unveiling a new, adventurous menu. The restaurant’s owner (Dustin Hoffman) has other ideas, giving Chef an ultimatum to “play the hits” for both the critic and the restaurant’s loaded book of reservations.

“If you go to see The Rolling Stones and Jagger doesn’t play “Satisfaction,” you’re going to be pissed, right?” Hoffman’s character suggests. And I guess he’s right. To a certain extent.

The whole truth is that the masses are going to want to hear “Satisfaction” and the rest of the hits, but a critic or hardcore fan familiar with the Stones’ entire discography is going to be more appreciative of the deep cuts — especially if they’ve already seen the Stones a dozen times over the years.

So Casper “plays the hits” and his menu gets slammed by the critic who claims Casper has lost his passion for cooking. The review is particularly hurtful to Casper, mostly because deep down, he knows it’s true. Somewhere along the line, Casper lost sight of why he started cooking in the first place.

His job no longer makes him happy. He has begun doing it for money and stability, rather than simply making something he can be proud of. He’s an artist. And when your heart isn’t into what you’re producing, your art is going to suffer. Wait. Am I talking about Casper the Chef or Favreau the filmmaker here? Aah, such is the beauty of self-reflection.

Casper loses his job amidst a massive emotional breakdown that plays itself out publicly over social media. So not only is he jobless, he’s virtually unhireable. With no other options, he reluctantly takes a food truck as a gift from the ex-husband (Robert Downey Jr.) of his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara).

With his best friend (John Leguizamo) and 10-year-old son (the fantastic Emjay Anthony) in tow, Chef begins selling the best Cuban sandwiches this side of the Caribbean while embarking on a cross-country road trip where he rediscovers his passion for cooking and gets to know the son he previously never made time for.

Despite what I said earlier about Spider-Man, there is a part of me that enjoys superhero movies and other big-budget spectacles, just as I’m sure Favreau enjoys making them in a way. But there’s an electricity present in the hilarious, heavily improvised interaction between Favreau and Downey Jr. that I never felt in any of the Iron Man movies. There is just something special about watching a spontaneous collaboration between two great comedic and dramatic minds, completely raw and untainted by the filters of major studio politics.

Just as Chef is rejuvenated by the process of working as his own boss, Favreau seems re-energized by working outside the studio system once again. Chef is about as soft a R-rated film as you’ll find. But if you’ve ever worked in a kitchen, you know the ability to throw in an extra F-bomb or two gives the film a refreshing level of naturalism and authenticity.

Chef likely isn’t going to win any Oscars. And it damn sure isn’t going to make any money. But dammit, we need movies like Chef.

We need them so talented filmmakers can believe they’re going to get a chance to tell the stories they want to tell. We need them so art house theaters have something to play between the months of March and November and adult moviegoers don’t completely abandon the cinema over the summer months. And we need them so people like myself can experience the emotions of watching a real story unfold and feel inspired by real characters we can relate to. Right or wrong, I use movies as a form of therapy. And watching Chef, you get a sense that making the film was therapeutic for Favreau as well.

Favreau is a charming storyteller, and Chef’s story is the type of story he deserves to tell — one he can both begin and end without concern for the long-term ramifications of the character’s potential franchise. And just as Chef rediscovers happiness when he begins cooking for himself again, Favreau is clearly at his best when he’s making movies for himself.

Grade: A

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  • Rob Graham

    Great review. I just got home from seeing ‘Chef’ earlier this evening, and I absolutely loved it. (And of course, I just had to make a stop for a Cuban sandwich on my way home… This movie will seriously make you hungry!)