Back in April I had the good fortune of seeing a preview screening of Jon Favreau’s Chef. At the time, I effused about the movie and all of its merits. Whenever I pour my heart out like I did back then, I wonder whether I was right or wrong in my perception of the film. That Chef became a hit film this summer excited me, but I was still curious if I went overboard. Thus, when the opportunity presented itself to take a second look at Chef, I leapt at it. After watching the film again, I think I love the film even more.
After directing several big budget Hollywood films, Favreau went back to his indie roots (he wrote Swingers and directed Made) and went against the grain with Chef. First of all, it doesn’t adhere to the traditional three act structure of most movies. The second half switches from the narrative of a man in crisis to a road movie. The big studios would never allow this kind of tonal shift (something Favreau discusses in the Blu-ray commentary). Second, as an indie film, Chef is not dark or brooding, nor based on some devastating moment in history. It’s a smaller, character driven film, closer to the 70s films that inspire Favreau rather than the Marvel movies that gave him clout.
Nevertheless, that clout didn’t get him big bucks when it came to Chef. But Favreau had a story that he felt a need to tell. He called upon his friends (albeit, Academy Award nominees and winners) to help him out, and the movie got produced.
Chef is the story of Carl Casper, the head chef at a swanky Brentwood, CA restaurant that draws large crowds because of the fine menu Carl created. However, Carl is burnt out on serving the same meal every night and longs to flex his creative muscles. Unfortunately, the restaurant’s owner, Riva (an excellent Dustin Hoffman) wants Carl to stick to the “hits.” When LA’s most important food critic (delectably played by Oliver Platt) comes to review Carl’s cuisine, he savages the food, disappointed that the once promising chef he discovered in Miami has lowered himself to serving the same tired food every day.
Carl is divorced, possibly because he spent all of his time on the job, and he barely has time to spend with his ten year old son, Percy, beautifully portrayed by Emjay Anthony. The relationship Carl has with Percy is one of the many regrets he has in his life and one that he could rectify if time permitted. Lame excuse, I know, but Carl never claims to be a good father.
Things go wrong with the food critic when Carl, new to social media, begins a Twitter fight with the guy. Riva tells Carl he can’t cook a new menu. Carl quits his job. Out of work and suddenly unhirable, he finds himself at a professional and personal crossroads. At the urging of his ex-wife, Inez (Sofia Vergara), Carl travels to Miami with Percy and her for what is supposed to be a chance to reflect on his life. Instead, she’s arranged for Carl to meet with her first ex-husband (a perfect Robert Downey, Jr.), who sells him a food truck. After a rechristening of the truck, Carl sets off on a cross country trip to bring his truck and the Cuban food that he loves so much back to Los Angeles. Traveling with him are his best friend and sous chef, Martin (John Leguizamo, who has never been funnier or more charming). Even more important, Percy comes along to learn about his father’s trade and to spend some quality time with him.
The love that emanates from this movie, not just between the characters, but from the passion of Carl working in the kitchen, using his God given gift to create and bring joy to people, drives this film. Much in the same way Carl finds rebirth in the Cuban food of his youth and starting over with a food truck, you sense that Favreau has undergone his own rebirth with Chef. There is no doubt that Carl’s struggle to be an original while his boss is ordering him to follow a set formula for the masses is an allegory for filmmaking. Favrerau says as much in the commentary he shares with co-producer and on set chef consultant, Roy Choi, the creator of the Korean BBQ truck, Kogi.
If you’ve had your fill of superheroes and secret agents, monsters and mayhem, if you can do without horror and depressing indie fare, you have to watch Chef. The movie is pure joy and sure to bring a smile to your face. And since the film was a hit, I feel confident that I’m right in my opinion.
The Blu-ray release includes a DVD and digital HD copy of the film, deleted scenes, and the excellent commentary by Favreau and Roy Choi. It is released by Universal Home Video.