Review: Chef (2014)

Chef is a delightful film coming out amidst a glut of summer films hoping to beat us into the ground with dire action and sombre apocalyptic scenarios. Not that this summer hasn’t had its high points, but none of those films, even the superb Edge of Tomorrow, put as big a smile on my face as Chef did. About a high-end gourmet chef rediscovering his artistic side by preparing greasy food truck treats, it’s as close to a cinematic version of comfort food as you can get. It’s got a great cast and a gentle scenario full of light conflict and genuine human interaction.

Jon Favreau writes, directs, and stars as Carl Casper, a gourmet chef running the kitchen of a high-end restaurant in Los Angeles. After refusing to compromise his food for his misguided boss (Dustin Hoffman) and getting into a hilariously publicized feud with a food critic (Oliver Platt), Carl loses his job and his reputation as a great chef. In a desperate bid to keep doing what he loves, he acquires a food truck and goes about rehabilitating his career and his approach to cooking.

It’s easy to read Chef as a metaphor for Favreau’s own career as a filmmaker. After a promising start as the writer of Swingers, Favreau got sucked up into the Hollywood machine. He directed Elf, one of the few recent Christmas films to deserve the label of classic, and he kick-started the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Iron Man. But his creative efforts were increasingly twisted to serve studio goals. He famously departed from Marvel after his vision for Iron Man 2 conflicted with the studio’s own. He then went on to make Cowboys & Aliens, a lifeless Hollywood actioner that tanked commercially and critically. He’d had enough of compromising his own voice for the sake of commercial interest and swore to return to more personal projects.

Chef is that personal return to independent filmmaking. It’s a small film, focused on people, not action sequences. It doesn’t shoehorn in conflict in a bid to drive forward a shallow plot. It’s clearly a personal film for Favreau, and that openly personal touch makes it a pleasure for the audience to watch. You get a sense that it’s as much fun to watch as it was for Favreau to make.

There isn’t much conflict in Chef, and what little there is is restricted to the film’s first half, which focuses on Carl’s career meltdown. During the opening act of the film, Carl struggles to retain control over what he serves while his boss wants to stick to the status quo. He sees his son every second weekend, but he’s too focused on his professional anxiety to invest in genuinely connecting with him. He makes some mistakes and lets his ego get in the way and he suffers professionally for it. But he’s got a support group of friends and family that lift him back up and give him a chance to rediscover why he became a chef in the first place. Even his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) is extremely gracious with him. Chef doesn’t focus on Carl's descent. It basks in the pleasure his food can give the people around him. By the time Carl has set up his food truck and hit the road for New Orleans and Austin, the film has fallen into an enthusiastic rhythm of non-stop cooking, Cuban music, and father-son bonding. It’s just nice to see decent people be happy on screen for a change.

The filmmaking doesn’t always match the story’s personal style, as Favreau has always favoured crisp compositions and clean editing to looser or more eccentric techniques. However, his eye for a good, clean shot works well for the amount of food coverage this film basks in. He even outdoes the Food Network in his ability to photograph food deliciously. Grilled cheese sandwiches. Texan brisket. Beignets. Po’ boys. Cubanos. It’d be easy to call Favreau’s food montage strategy “food porn,” but the amount of passion here makes it something more. Carl loves the food for the flavour, but he also loves how food allows him to touch people’s lives in some small way.

It's this final point that makes the film hit home thematically. As an artist, Carl just wants to do what he loves and connect with people that enjoy what he makes. That Chef also allows Carl to have a healthy relationship with family and friends is the kicker that makes the film something more than a trite discussion of artistic reinvention. Unlike so many other films concerned with the artistic process that glorify the fact that an artist has to sacrifice any happiness or personal relationships in order to succeed professionally, Chef says that you can be a good person and a good artist. As Carl becomes a better chef, he also becomes a better father. He can have both. That’s not a message every film puts across, but as an artist who hopes to have a healthy domestic and professional life, it’s one that makes me undeniably happy.

8 out of 10

Chef (USA, 2014)

Written and directed by Jon Favreau; starring Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Emjay Anthony, Scarlett Johnasson, Bobby Cannavale, Oliver Platt, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Downey Jr.