I’ve been watching a lot of movies about food lately. You will remember last month on this blog I did a 3-part series on food and wine in Scorsese’s GoodFellas (Part I, Part II, Part III). Not too long ago I dove back into Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia, starring Meryl Streep as Julia Child, and Bob Giraldi’s Dinner Rush has always been a favorite of mine since the first time I saw it nearly 15 years ago. My husband talked me into watching a more recent (2014) film I’d never heard of, called Chef, directed by writer-comedian Jon Favreau. Not only was I very pleasantly surprised, but I was in fact enchanted with the way that the film depicted cooking and food, and it got me thinking about the cinematic treatment of food in general.
The way I hear most people talk about Chef, it’s a comedy film about a big time L.A. gourmet chef who winds up running a food truck–the proverbial “taco truck.” This is a vast oversimplification of what the movie really is. For one thing, the taco truck doesn’t show up until the film’s second half, and while food and cooking are (naturally) featured very prominently, the heart of the movie is about the relationship between the chef, Carl Casper (Favreau), and his 10-year-old son Percy (Emjay Anthony). This is the whole engine of the picture, and Favreau, who wrote and directed it, was very smart to hang the movie’s flesh of its food-porn plot around the skeleton of this basic human drama. This means Chef very much hits both funny and dramatic notes, as well as showing us some really amazing culinary creations.
In the film, Carl Casper is the star chef at a gourmet restaurant owned by his demanding boss, played by Dustin Hoffman. Although Casper wants to flex his creative muscles and cook various savory new dishes, his boss insists that it’s his old standby dishes that keep people coming to the restaurant, so he discourages innovation. When arrogant food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) shows up and is served the “same old same old,” he writes a scathing review and posts it on the Internet. This happens at the precise moment that Casper, who is usually too busy to hang around with his son Percy, is spending some rare quality time with the kid, who introduces him to Twitter. Casper doesn’t understand how Twitter works, though, and he thinks his snarky rebuttal to Michel’s review is private, when in fact it goes out on the whole web. When the tweet war goes viral, Casper is fired and humiliated in front of the whole world. He gets back on his feet by going to Miami, where his Cuban ex-wife (Sofia Vegara) is from, and decides to start over again with a mobile food truck selling Cuban sandwiches. Percy, wanting to spend more time with his dad, wants to help. When Casper enlists him as a cook and de facto social media consultant, the truck becomes hugely popular, re-launching Casper as a star in the gourmet world.
Chef’s real strength is its writing. Favreau has a knack for getting to the nub of human relationships, and portrays them honestly, with both sentimental and cringe-worthy moments that never seem contrived. The film also makes wonderful use of its supporting cast, which includes not just Dustin Hoffman, but Scarlett Johansen as a waitress, John Leguizamo (Summer of Sam) as a cook who joins the food truck, and even a spaced-out Robert Downey, Jr. as the financier of the taco truck. Chef also makes terrific use of real-life locations, shifting the action from L.A. to Miami and eventually to New Orleans, all places sizzling with hot culinary culture and big egos surrounding it.
After seeing this scene from Chef, you will never look at a grilled cheese sandwich the same way again.
And the food shown in the movie looks amazing. Everything looks absolutely fantastic, from the gourmet beef medallions cooked up in the L.A. gourmet restaurant, to the mouth-watering Cuban sandwiches that come off the “El Jefe” truck in the picture’s last hour, to a simple grilled cheese sandwich that looks like the best grilled cheese ever made. Everything is photographed with a lingering close-up visual style, catching every succulent dollop and sizzling drop, that borders on pornography. Yet at the same time it’s very real. We see characters chopping, cleaning greasy skillets and agonizing over too-toasted sandwich buns. The scenes in the food truck are shot like a submarine movie, all close quarters with blazing hot ovens and irons in your face every three inches. Through all of it, though, is a sense of light-hearted love of good cooking and good eating, best shared with family and friends. Chef definitely shows us the stresses and downsides of the gourmet food world, but it also shows us how much fun it can be, how positive and uplifting. What could have been a very bland movie is full of character and flavor.
I highly recommend Chef to anyone who’s interested in food (and who isn’t?) and who enjoys a small-scale but still quite enjoyable movie. It’s a welcome addition to the growing list of films about food, which is a subject that needs to be up there on the silver screen more than it traditionally has been.