For a film intending to celebrate cuisine as an art-form, Chef is lacking in flavor. While it clearly aspires to the savory delights of the Cuban sandwiches at its center, it’s more like a serviceable peanut butter and jelly.
Jon Favreau wrote, directed, and stars as Carl Casper, a hotshot LA chef who fears his best creative days are past. The owner of his restaurant, Riva (Dustin Hoffman), urges him to keep the customers happy by sticking to the proven menu rather then experimenting with new dishes. “Play the hits,” he tells Carl.
Carl listens and ends up on the receiving end of a withering review by the most important food blogger in the city, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt). After Carl goads Michel into making a return visit so he can plate a whole new menu for him, Riva insists that Carl again stick to the tried-and-true. A standoff and a subsequent meltdown that becomes a viral video result in Carl losing his job.
Which is for the best, don’t you know, because Carl is also the World’s Most Oblivious Dad. He’s got a son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), begging to spend time with him, but Carl’s too committed to his craft, you see. He’s a workaholic, and it’s only after he’s stripped of his work that he’s able to reconnect with Percy and rekindle his own passion for cooking.
I only wish Chef had done more to stir the audience’s passion for eating. There are plenty of shots of knives cutting produce, chopping meat, ingredients being assembled onto perfectly composed plates, but I never got hungry. Instead my thoughts turned to the host of other movies about food that more successfully communicate the complex desires and pleasures that cooking can provoke: Big Night, Like Water For Chocolate, even Ratatouille.
Chef becomes more interested in its father-son relationship and in reconnecting Carl with his ex-wife, Inez (Sofía Vergara). Carl sets up a food truck and takes Percy and his sous chef Martin (John Leguizamo) on a cross-country trip, stopping to sell sandwiches in New Orleans and Austin along the way. Percy handles the online marketing, while much fun is poked at Carl for his ignorance of social media. All of it seems like an excuse to work the trendiness of food trucks and Twitter and Austin into one cool-kids-approved concoction.
So why’s it feel so inert, even if the characters are pleasant enough company for a couple of hours? There are a few genuine laughs, but mostly the film’s gags elicit nothing more than smiles. There’s no significant conflict. Carl’s lows aren’t particularly low, and his journey back to the top (while he’s also learning to become World’s Greatest Dad) encounters only minor speed bumps.
I guess I’d have liked to see him suffer for his food.