Every now and then when I check the movie listings, I see a movie that I had never heard of before. Maybe I missed the trailers or maybe the marketing budget was tiny, but Chef was completely off my radar. I’m really glad that amongst summer blockbusters and cartoon dragons, I decided to give this under-promoted film a shot.
Chef opens on Chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) struggling with the stifling demands of restaurant owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman), whose insistence that he continue to cook the same menu year after year threatens Casper’s reputation as a chef. When food blogger Ramsey Michael (Oliver Platt) slams Carl for his lack of creativity, he accidentally starts a “flame war” on Twitter, leading to a showdown in the restaurant and, ultimately, Carl losing his job. With the help of his ex-wife, Inez (Sofia Vergara); his son, Percy (Emjay Anthony); and sous chef Martin (John Leguizamo), Carl opens a food truck, taking his cooking back to delicious basics. On a journey to drive the food truck home from Miami to L.A., Carl rejuvenates his career and finally gets to bond with his son.
In many ways, Chef just deploys tried-and-true narrative elements: a person finding happiness by following their passions, the love of food and its connection to people’s lives, a family road trip, a buddy comedy. What I think makes this film so good, however, is that it turns down the volume on these elements so that, rather than feeling like stock-narratives, they seem true-to-life and the stories we tell ourselves to get through. The dialogue doesn’t sound like the characters have the benefit of a screenwriter, so moments that could have been overly-dramatic or sentimental instead are understated and sincere. For example, when Carl blows up on the food critic, his speech is so banal that I cringed for him. Where another movie might use the movement to grand stand about the love of food, Carl mostly ends up shouting “It hurts!” over and over. It’s embarrassing.
Furthermore, a lot of the character development happens implicitly so that the more sentimental moments hit home without the exaggerated dialogue. Early in the film there’s a cooking sequence in which Carl makes a beautiful grilled cheese sandwich for his son with the same care that we’d seen him use for his restaurant food. Later, when he gives the obligatory speech about his love of food to Percy, who had just tried to serve a work crew a burned sandwich, the speech sounds authentic, not because we expect it from a chef, but because we’ve actually seen the love put into a simple grilled cheese.
Perhaps because of this organic quality to the writing, there are scenes that don’t appear to serve any real purpose. In the middle of the movie the story starts to meander. I’ll admit that it was an enjoyable trip and rarely did things I thought would happen actually happen. Nonetheless, the plot of the movie is not quite as well-crafted as the characters or the dialogue.
The cinematography on Chef is gorgeous. How could it not be? Between the food photography and the road trip, there is plenty of natural beauty to work with. The food scenes in particular stand out in my memory for the colors and textures and the skill with which dishes were cooked and plated. The road trip scenes, however, capitalize on lighting and architecture to capture vivid colors in places like Little Havana, the French Quarter, and the desert.
The performances in the film are outstanding. Jon Favreau, Emjay Anthony, and John Leguizamo have a fun chemistry that compensates for the fact that Favreau and Sofia Vergara do not. It was nice to see Vergara in a more serious role than Gloria of Modern Family. Although her scenes are limited, she is warm and charming as Carl’s powerful and affectionate ex-wife. Small roles by Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansoon, Amy Sedaris, and Robert Downey Jr. pepper the movie. Each sells his or her character pretty well, although none are given enough screentime to really disappear into the role.
For the quality of its writing and the beauty of its cinematography, I rate Chef 4/5 stars.
Chef was written and directed by Jon Favreau. It runs 114 minutes and is rated R for language, including some suggestive references.