Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) is a disillusioned chef fed up with his restaurant’s management, poor reviews and lack of creativity. After an online battle with a well-known critic leads to further frustration, Carl decides to leave and go solo as a food truck operator in a bid to rediscover his flair for cooking.
Billed as ‘a romantic comedy between man and a sandwich’, this tasty treat follows a well-worn narrative path: man loses everything in a humiliating career conflagration and is forced to go back to his roots, thus rediscovering professional passion while also reconnecting with ‘the things that matter’. Which is exactly what the film’s charming and likeable writer, director and star Jon Favreau has done with Chef, returning to his humble indie ensemble roots (Swingers, Made), perhaps as a palate-cleanser after more recent forays into producing and directing Hollywood blockbusters like the first two Iron Man movies and the regrettable Cowboys and Aliens.
"The food in this film is gorgeously shot and looks mouth-wateringly good – unless you’re a vegetarian"
With a big belly, arms covered in tattoos, and meaty fingers surprisingly nimble with a knife, Favreau is completely convincing as Carl Casper, a brilliant but creatively frustrated chef in a fancy LA restaurant owned by a hard-headed businessman, Riva (Dustin Hoffman). Casper is happiest when he’s creating fresh new dishes inspired by fresh market produce, and when he’s bantering and bossing about in the kitchen with his sous chef (Bobby Cannavale) and his loyal line chef (John Leguizamo). After work, there’s drinking and canoodling with the sexy and sympathetic maître d (Scarlett Johansson) who looks on lovingly as he creates slippery pasta masterpieces.
But creating new dishes is not on the agenda for restaurant owner Riva, who insists that the chef continue to pump out the old favourites. ("How angry would you be if you went to see the Rolling Stones and they didn’t play 'Satisfaction?' he says with infuriating logic.)
When powerful food blogger Ramsay Michel (a perfectly piggy Oliver Platt), calls out the menu as ‘needy’, stale and tired, Casper lets loose with a tirade that goes viral on social media. He loses his job and is forced to hang out with his neglected son Percy (Emjay Anthony) and his supportive ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara). They go on a trip to Miami – the place where Caspar first learnt to cook – and he finds himself setting up a food truck in which he creates classic Cuban sandwiches. Thus ensues a road trip back to LA, via New Orleans and Austin, in which the father teaches the boy to cook, the boy teaches the father how to use social media, and John Leguizamo completes the male bonding trio with good humour and handy Latino language skills.
The food in this film is gorgeously shot and looks mouth-wateringly good – unless you’re a vegetarian, in which case be warned that there’s an awful lot of flesh on show, from sizzling trays of bacon, through to shiny seared scallops and tender charred pork bellies. Extended sequences showcasing the sensual pleasures of cooking and eating are set against upbeat Latin jazz, creating a mood of hospitable and mouth-watering excitement – even when the food is really just bread and meat, with great gobs of butter and cheese.
Apart from the gorgeous food on show (there really are a lot of close-ups of food, so don’t see this film hungry), the real pleasures involve the camaraderie of the kitchen and the palpable joys of collaborating on shared projects. Favreau knows what it’s like to play well in a team, and he gives great cameos to his friends, including the scene-stealing Robert Downey Jr, who plays an hilariously hyped-up Miami businessman with a fondness for mind-games.
It may be unevenly paced and all too predictable, but for food lovers and Favreau fans, Chef is very easy to enjoy – and filled with some genuine tips and tricks for the kitchen. Stay for the credits to see the surprisingly serious business of creating a toasted cheese sandwich.
Saturday 29 May, 9:25pm on SBS / Now streaming at SBS On Demand
M, AD, CC
Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr., John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman