The first movie I remember Jon Favreau for is Swingers. I was a lot younger then, and so was he. When I walked out, all I could think of was wearing guayabera shirts, drinking cocktails, and swing dancing with Heather Graham.
Chef is like that. I really enjoyed this film. It's a little bit of everything. A buddy comedy, a personal quest, a modern social networking commentary, a family drama, and a road trip. By the end, I had a smile on my face and all I could think of doing was going home to cook something for dinner. (I did, by the way. Bacon Mac and Cheese. It was tas-ty.)
The ingredients, presentation, and execution are more impressive here than the recipe itself. There's nothing particularly shocking or surprising about the storylines. Sure it's relatively predictable, but it isn't distressingly contrived. There are no accidental dismemberments, or life-threatening accidents. The actors and characters are genuine and likable.
I'll start with Favreau himself. He plays Carl Casper, a once up-and-coming chef who has been working for an owner who isn't so much evil as unimaginative, played by Dustin Hoffman. Things go sour based on a review by a rich food blogger (Oliver Platt), leading to a social media misunderstanding that abruptly and permanently alters everyone's circumstances.
The opening credits show him preparing his mise-en-place for a big night at his restaurant. Everything looks fresh and delicious. His knife cuts are precise, and it is clear that he is a talented and professional chef. He loves food, and believes that he connects with people through his cooking. His staff, including Bobby Cannavale as a partying sous-chef and Scarlett Johanssen as a smoky-voiced, tattooed hostess who literally melts at his food, worship his abilities and vision, but they are realistic about their need for employment. Carl respects them as well, and when his own misfortune leads to an opportunity for one of them, he is genuinely supportive.
Carl is divorced but still friendly with his ex-wife Inez, played a little too sweetly by Sofia Vergara. He is too busy to connect with his 10-year old son, Percy, but that changes when he has to have Percy teach him about Twitter and social networking. Inez has a solution to Carl's problems. Her other ex-husband is a wealthy man in Miami, and he has an old food truck that Carl can fix up. This provides an opportunity for a memorably hilarious cameo by a familiar film friend in a scene which I can only surmise was entirely improvised, based on the rhythm of the dialog and Favreau's clearly amused reactions.
The arrival of the food truck changes the tone of the film to a buddy/road genre. John Leguizamo plays Carl's sous-chef, and loyal, trusted companion Martin, who is way smarter than Sancho Panza. He joins Carl and Percy in Miami, where they renovate the truck and then embark on a cross country journey. Leguizamo is an actor that I rarely think of but who always entertains me. This role is perfect for him. The enclosed spaces of the kitchen and the food truck, the innocence of Carl's 10-year old son, and Favreau's dominating physical size ensure that Leguizamo's infectious energy always is contained and directed back out to the audience. It's a role that could have been way overplayed, but Leguizamo is consistently believable and routinely hilarious. We all need a Martin.
Favreau clearly did his research for the film (I even saw him on Top Chef!), and made me believe that he not only has some cooking skills, but he knows his way around a professional kitchen. The truck renovation scenes are similar to the training montages in the Rocky movies. Carl displays his knowledge of equipment and techniques, and teaches his son a few life and cooking lessons along the way. There is no romantic illusion about the life of a professional chef here, nor is there some populist lesson about how cooking in a food truck is a purer form of creation than being a restaurant chef. I particularly liked that Carl isn't portrayed as an egomaniacal food snob and that, unlike so many of the aspiring celebrity and competition chefs that inundate reality television, his goal in life is not to have a restaurant empire and a television persona.
Favreau also has a gift for music. From the opening credits to the closing scenes, his music choices are indispensable. As in Swingers, the music sets not just the tone of the film but the tempo. He incorporates all genres and performance types. There's rarely a moment where feet aren't tapping.
But in the end, and the beginning, and all throughout, there's the food. The food, the food, the food. There's fresh produce, purees, sauces, whole pigs, giant rib steaks, caramel sugar dust, and loads and loads of butter. There's enough solid advanced technique and classical preparation to make anyone with a little knowledge feel like an insider, and in addition to the acting cameo there are food cameos. There are Cuban sandwiches in Miami, beignets from Cafe du Monde in New Orleans, and smoked Texas brisket from Franklin Barbecue outside Austin. There wasn't a single piece of food shown in this film that everyone in the audience didn't want to leap through the screen and eat. Food is Carl and Martin's glorious companion, and it becomes the conduit of understanding between Percy and Carl.
Chefs constantly spew that they put "love" on the plate. I've always thought that was a vapid concept. Love doesn't mean that you can sear a steak better than someone else. You can't put love into every plate of food you serve to total strangers, no matter how close you were to your grandmother with whose meatloaf recipe you're now trying to win 15 minutes of fame on a contrived competition show, or how great your new idea is for what to do with Berkshire pork belly.
The Carl Casper we meet at the beginning of this film thinks he cooks with love, but he can't even love his own son. By the end of Favreau's Chef, Carl understands that his passion and dedication to his craft allow him to connect with strangers by creating food that they eat and enjoy, but it is balance and love in his own life that allows him to create that connection with someone through something as simple as a grilled cheese sandwich.