“Chef,” Reviewed: Savory and Sweet.


The real-life parallels between the narrative of Chef and its writer-director-star Jon Favreau are hard to miss. Favreau plays Carl Casper, a celebrity chef who loses his cool, and then his job and reputation, after a savage review sends him into a viral YouTube-ready tirade. I haven’t heard of that exact thing happening to Favreau, but after the stinging reviews of Iron Man 2 and Cowboys and Aliens, I wouldn’t be too surprised if he had a few accidentally recorded rants in his digital closet.

Favreau started working in the early ’90s with some forgettable acting roles before writing his own ticket to success, literally, with the screenplay to Swingers (1996), the definitive lounge-lizard comedy that made Vince Vaughn a star and forced us to take its creator seriously. He stayed indie with Made (2001) before rolling into mainstream fare: First Elf, then Zathura, then Iron Man and the Marvel movies. It’s a blueprint for a successful career, but it’s also not hard to see how a small-scale project might seem refreshing.

Thus, Chef, in which Carl regroups after his meltdown and returns to his roots: At the urging of his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara), he heads back to his hometown of Miami and launches a food truck business selling Cuban sandwiches and … well, basically whatever he wants to cook. There are two themes in Favreau’s film, with the first all about the importance of a creator being free to create without interference. As that critic (Oliver Platt) makes clear, Carl’s decade of L.A. success has come at the cost of his artistry; under the thumb of a blustery restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman), he’s been making the same lobster risotto and molten lava cake for too long. He needs to do his own thing again – even if that thing is selling Panini and beignets out of the back of a truck.

The second theme is family – specifically, the eroding relationship between Carl and his preteen son Percy (played in a smart, anti-precocious turn by EmJay Anthony). Percy isn’t unhappy at home with his mom, but he deeply craves Dad Time, and is credibly crestfallen whenever Carl (frequently) lets him down. When Carl gets the food truck up and running, Percy joins him for the long ride from Miami to Los Angeles – with stops in New Orleans and Austin along the way – and the steadily increasing success of their business tracks with the improving father-son relationship. Percy uses the Internet to help prime each upcoming destination for the truck’s arrival; he’s a marketing guru and an amateur kitchen apprentice, but he’s really just thrilled to be with his dad.

You can’t have a movie called Chef without some serious cooking scenes, and Favreau the director attacks these sequences with both the attention of a cinematic artist and the zeal of a big guy who likes to eat. I was struck by an early scene in which Carl has been sent home from Hoffman’s restaurant, and spends the night cooking for therapy: A gastronomic orgasm slowly builds on his stainless-steel prep table. But there’s equal discipline and affection in a simple scene of him making a grilled cheese sandwich for Percy, and later, of father and son sampling a slow-roasted brisket in Texas. Chef will leave you hungry for a good meal afterwards – and for whatever its behind-the-camera creator decides to put on his menu next.