Written, directed and co-produced by Favreau, he also takes the lead role in the film as Carl Casper, a renowned chef working at a chic L.A. restaurant. Once an ingenious risk taker in the kitchen, Carl is stuck in a rut, preparing the same menu night after night, and letting his gifts go to waste. It’s not like he’s unaware; Carl desires to be more inventive. However, his boss, Riva (Dustin Hoffman), demands that Carl stick to the tried and true restaurant menu. In a great exchange, Riva tells Carl, “How would you feel if you went to see the Rolling Stones and they didn’t play ‘Satisfaction.’… Stick to your greatest hits.”
Carl is divorced, although he gets along great with his ex-wife, Inez (a wonderful Sofia Vergara), and he’s the father to pre-teen Percy (scene stealing Emjay Anthony). He has a loyal staff, which includes his line cook, Martin (John Leguizamo at his best) and sous chef, Tony (Bobby Cannavale), plus a flirtatious relationship with the restaurant hostess, Molly (a winning Scarlett Johansson). Everyone who loves Carl can see that he’s uninspired and in need for a radical change.
A feud with a food critic (Oliver Platt) leads to Carl walking off the line and finding himself out of work for the first time in years. After a public blowout makes him an infamous YouTube sensation, Carl’s prospects are minimal. He opts to accompany Inez and Percy to Miami, where he can look after his son while Inez does business. It’s all a ploy, though, as Inez is intent on connecting Carl with her first ex-husband (Robert Downey, Jr.) so he can buy a food truck and start over his career.
The joyful Miami setting and the impeccable Cuban food Carl devours remind him why he became a chef in the first place. But something else happens while down in Florida, Carl and Percy connect for the first time as father and son. Carl has always been a weekend dad whose idea of quality time is going to the movies or an amusement park. He’s blind to his son’s desires, which are as simple as just hanging out and Carl showing Percy how to cook or Percy showing his dad how Twitter works. It’s not that Carl is a bad dad, he obviously loves his boy, but he’s so preoccupied with the restaurant that he’s missing out on important years in Percy’s life.
At this point, the true heart of Chef kicks in. The realistic story of Carl and Percy forming a special bond makes the movie special. If you are a parent, I’m convinced that you’ll find yourself wearing a huge smile throughout the movie as Carl and Percy grow closer.
No sooner does Carl decide to open his own food truck, than Martin quits his job in L.A. and flies to Miami to join his friend and mentor. The final course of the movie involves a cross country road trip on the food truck, rechristened “El Jefe.” With Percy en tow, Carl and Martin set out to build a reputation. By the time they return to L.A., Carl has a huge following (thanks to his son being tech savvy), and he’s built the foundation of a strong relationship with Percy.
I imagine that reading my synopsis, you might believe that Favreau’s script sounds rather predictable. I assure you, I don’t do the film justice. The story may seem familiar, but Favreau really shows his filmmaking expertise with this delicious character film. As a director, he draws honest performances from each of his actors. Heavyweights like Hoffman, Johansson and Downey, Jr. took small roles, I’m sure to help get the film made. But they each deliver some of the best acting in years. Likewise, Vergara and Leguizamo are superb. And young Emjay Anthony gives a heartfelt and beautiful performance as a boy who looks up to, worships and loves his father with all of his heart.
The screenplay is tight, funny and free of any forced moments. I loved that Favreau didn’t force any false drama by having Percy get lost while they’re in New Orleans, or critically injured while cooking sandwiches, therefore creating some kind of melodramatic reason for Inez to take Percy away. Furthermore, I appreciated that the resolution into the final act was a mere five minutes after the supposed “all is lost” moment in the film.
Favreau took great care in capturing an authentic look and feel of a working restaurant kitchen, as well as what it’s like to cook inside the confined space of a food truck. The preparation and cooking of the food in this movie was also expertly done. Favreau’s technical adviser was renowned Roy Choi, creator of the gourmet Korean taco truck, Kogi. Whatever Choi taught Favreau paid off; the actor shows that he knows how to handle a chef’s knife.
Finally, the specific music Favreau chose to fit each locale in the movie is joyful and unexpected. Venice Beach is represented by 80s ska, Miami by the percussive drive of Cuban rhythms, New Orleans is full of horns and whistles (listen for a great rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”), and Austin, TX features the blues of Gary Clark.
Chef is rated ‘R’, but like several great films, such as Almost Famous and The King’s Speech, which go for authenticity instead of kowtowing to the MPAA ratings board, Favreau’s movie is ‘R’ because of the language. However, I would not hesitate to show Chef to my 12-year-old son. As Percy points out in the movie, the language used in this film is not anything a kid wouldn’t hear on YouTube or on the playground.
After nearly 10 years of making huge Hollywood blockbusters (Zathura was released in 2005), it’s great to see Favreau back making a personal film. Hopefully he’ll continue to make one for them (Favreau’s next project is a version of The Jungle Book for Disney) and one for himself, because he’s the type of artist who is capable of excelling on a large scale, or with a limited budget (Chef was made for $11 million).
It’s summer, and the $200 Million blockbuster season has just begun. How ironic that Open Road, the distributor of Chef, has chosen this season to release the film, since Favreau has been responsible for his share of summertime special effects heavy sci-fi/superhero sagas. But Chef is the perfect antidote for those loud, explosive films. If you want a complete cinematic experience, track down where Chef is screening in your town and go see it. I promise you won’t leave disappointed. Hungry, yes, but definitely not disappointed.