Tempting food puns aside, Chef is an exquisitely uncomplicated film starring, written and directed by Jon Favreau. After a feud involving Chef de cuisine Carl Casper (Favreau), his boss Riva (Dustin Hoffman) and a renowned food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), Carl quits his job at a ritzy restaurant, refurbishes an old food truck and begins cooking and selling Cubanos (Cuban sandwiches) across country, recapturing the meaning in his professional and personal life.
Along his journey, Carl is accompanied by protégé Martin (John Alberto Leguizamo) and his estranged son Percy (Emjay Anthony), while ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) checks in now and then. Reconciling his relationship with his family, through his greatest passion, Carl manages to connect and reconnect with those around him through his newfound approach to cooking and sharing food on the road. It’s clear-cut, pleasant, and a visual delight.
Relatively small in scale, Chef often feels very personal. Perhaps analogous of Favreau’s experiences in film production, parallels can be drawn between Carl’s autonomous return to a simpler menu and less distanced bond with family and customers, and the director’s homecoming to independent filmmaking after venturing into several high profile blockbusters. Even though some of its familial moments at times fall flat, the improvisational feel to much of the dialogue based in the various kitchen settings add to the film’s rounded personality, as characters speak over one another naturalistically.
Dustin Hoffman delivers this naturalism most effectively in his unwavering but understandable stance as restaurant owner Riva, battling against Carl’s push to create his own dishes. Elsewhere, Vergara’s caring and collected demeanour is a refreshing turn from the usually loud brand of comedy in her other work. Including himself, Favreau’s cast is a memorable one, with contributions from Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr. adding to an array of already winning performances, but all are collectively secondary to Chef‘s most impressive feature…
Mouth-watering culinary camera work completely absorbs attention. Almost sensually presented and edited together, the food and its photography are visually phenomenal; the cooking scenes are the highlights of the movie, which is loosely inspired by chef Roy Choi’s (co-producer on the film, overseeing and preparing all food seen on screen) pioneering food truck movement in the US. Sight, taste and touch are all stimulated at even a glimpse of grub, with Chef achieving even greater aesthetic success than designated cooking programmes.
Accompanying the delectable cuisine, the soundtrack further treats the senses. Heard are Perico Hernandez, Liquid Liquid, The Martinis and more, inputting a blues and jazzy bounce to the feel-good sensations saturated throughout. Cheesy it is not, Chef is gladly lacking in cliché for the most part, gradually increasing in its uplifting qualities during its 114 minute runtime.
Spoilers don’t really apply to Chef, because the outcome is clear from the start, the emphasis rests instead on the central journey, and words are an injustice to its sensually-driven experience. Musings on its pleasantries are satisfying, but don’t quite manage to capture the sentiments and sensations the film itself and Carl within it does; even the chore of cooking is somehow made to appear desirable.
In full creative control, Jon Favreau delivers another fine outing as an actor, writer and director, transitioning between comedy, drama and visual storytelling effortlessly. Now a year since its initial UK release, Chef is currently available to enjoy via Netflix: a highly recommended dish from its menu. Okay, one pun is allowed.