Being a chef means wearing many hats, and not necessarily the big puffy white one. There is building the menu, finding the ingredients, selecting and training the staff, ensuring everything is clean, sterile and safe. And that’s just big picture stuff. How about slicing, dicing, simmering, sautéing; making sure that isn’t over-ripe, that this isn’t undercooked, that they all go out to customers looking ready for their photo op like so many delicious tiny supermodels? You’re always against the clock, and always knowing that the worst dish of the day will be the one you will be remembered for.
Chefs call all that Monday. Then they do it 6 or 7 days a week 50 some weeks a year… The commitment and passion required to devote so much time and energy to one’s craft is such that many chefs are known as loose cannons, lunatics with quick tempers that are nigh impossible to please. People with issues.
Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) is one such proud and deeply insecure chef. He runs the kitchen in Riva’s (Dustin Hoffman) restaurant, with Martin (John Leguizamo) by his side and Molly (Scarlett Johannson) out front. That’s a movie right there. Just not this movie.
Carl has spent a lifetime juggling his career and kitchen, fitting in life and family where he can. As a result he has an ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) and a son that he sees every weekend in Percy… Every other weekend… when he can… While he has the occasional fling with Molly – who is fixated with his flair with food – it is food that is Carl’s mistress, and not always the eating of, though we see a lot of that.
When a heated run in leads to a bad review that leads to another confrontation and a walking out, Carl wonders if he needs to hit the reset button on his life.
One positive side-effect of this is more time with Percy, a sensible young 10 year old who adores his dad but is losing patience with all the flakiness and unreliability. Percy introduces Carl to the wonder of Twitter (and later other social media), which leads to a trading of 140 character virtual barbs with the food critic responsible for the scathing review (Oliver Platt).
Chef is a constant stream of surprises. It defies prediction and assumption. Just when you think ‘oh now this happens’ something entirely different happens. There is no build up to a crescendo, no single catalyst or Eureka moment, no contrivances, just a film with events that unwind over time, with characters who talk and act like real people.
Real people. Not movie people. So no moments where the eyes meet across the bridge. No showdowns at sundown with the Evil chef. No reality show that discovers Carl and introduces him to the nation. Carl doesn’t discover a secret recipe or invent a new type of soup that conquers the globe, and most importantly, Percy might be a mature young lad but he is certainly not one of those prodigies wise beyond his years.
The acting is natural and never forced. Favreau, Leguizamo and Vergara are all understated and charming. The story, though simple, is unpredictable, dynamic and uplifting. The music – oh the music – is intoxicating and invigorating. I’ve managed to stay away from lazy cooking analogies until now, but Chef is far more than the product of a bunch of mismatched ingredients. I can’t even recall the point where I realised how much I was enjoying this viewing experience. I just know that once I did, I revelled in watching the last hour unfurl.
It’s hard to believe a film with dialogue so profane can be so sweet. Hard to fathom how a film (initially) set in a sterile kitchen can be so passionate and full of warmth (without a real romantic subplot).
Most of all hard to understand how a film about not so much could end up to be so very fulfilling. Well it might be hard, unless you’ve already seen it.
Final Rating – 8.5 / 10. Chef stubbornly defies categorisation, aside from unexpectedly special. Favreau should let the new kids have the Iron Man type films, he should concentrate more on this stuff.