Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Jon Favreau, Emjay Anthony, John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara, Bobby Cannavale, Scarlett Johansson, Oliver Platt, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Downey Jr.
Jon Favreau started his career as an indie sensation with Swingers and Made, but the overwhelming success of Iron Man in 2008 drew him into the world of the blockbuster. With Chef the talented writer/director/actor returns to his independent roots.
Favreau plays Carl Casper, a highly regarded but burned out Los Angeles chef. His career took off ten years earlier as a result of a glowing review from influential food critic Ramsey Michel, but since then he has fallen into a bit of a rut. The news that Ramsey is going to return to his restaurant for the first time since that original review inspires Casper to plan an exciting new menu especially for the critic. But the restaurant’s owner steps in, insisting that the chef cook the existing menu, that he play the hits. The result is a scathing review which starts a Twitter war between chef and critic, ending in Casper losing his job. On a trip to Miami to clear his head with his ex-wife, Inez, and son, Percy, Casper buys and refurbishes an old taco truck. With his son and sous chef, Martin, by his side he drives and cooks his way back to Los Angeles, via New Orleans and Austin.
It is hard not to read this film as at some level allegorical. Is this really the story of a successful movie director who longs to make films that inspire him and that he is proud of, but is convinced by the studios that pay the bills to stick to the tried and tested and give the people what they want, only to then be slammed by the critics for being tired and unoriginal? Whether Favreau intends for Chef to be read as somewhat autobiographical or not, one thing is for sure, his heart and soul are completely in this film.
Chef has the feel of a passion project. This is a film that was made because Favreau wanted to make it, needed to make it, not because any studio was demanding it. Clearly there have been some favours called in, with previous collaborators like Robert Downey Jr and Scarlett Johansson appearing in smaller roles and giving the film some weight by association. But that passion pays off. Chef is so vibrant and alive. The food, the flavours, and the Cuban inspired soundtrack all combine with Favreau’s passion to create a film with a real sense of joy.
A word of warning: Chef is not a film to see on an empty stomach. Favreau has clearly not only learned to cook food (he was tutored by Chef Roy Choi), he has also learned how to shoot food. The food in Chef looks amazing. There is even a scene where Casper makes a grilled cheese sandwich for Percy which is somehow made to look like the most delicious thing in the world.
Yet while Chef works as pure food porn, the film has enough heart to ensure that it is more than just that. As well as being a celebration of food and cooking, Chef is about the reconnection of a father and a son. There is a great chemistry between Favreau and Emjay Anthony, the young actor who plays his son. As writer, director and performer, Favreau clearly has a great affection for this character and delivers the best performance of his career, and the ten-year-old Anthony gives an impressively natural performance, particularly in the scenes with Favreau and Leguizamo which would appear to be quite improvised.
Once the truck has been collected Chef becomes a meandering road trip, a film about taking the time to engage with your family, your friends, and your passions. A deceptively simple story, the film finishes quite abruptly, but that is not surprising because there is very little that needs resolving. Chef is an endearing celebration of food, cooking, creativity, passion and family which you can’t help but embrace.
Review by Duncan McLean
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