If art is not entirely imitating life in Producer/Writer/Director/Lead Actor John Favreau’s new film, Chef, there is enough of an autobiographical connection to be worth mentioning. Since his independent, hipster comedy Swingers twenty years ago, Favreau has been producing the blockbuster CGI-caked Iron Man series, directing the disastrous big budget Cowboys and Aliens and appearing in appalling, and over-budgeted adult comedies like Couples Retreat and Four Christmases. In short, he’s become a mega-rich Hollywood player, sacrificing creative fulfilment for safety and security.
With Chef, a relatively low budget film devoid of CGI that he controls from every angle, Favreau has returned to his roots with his best film in decades. The character he plays, L.A. celebrity chef Carl Casper (Favreau), goes on a similar journey in this entertaining, and only occasionally sentimental, feel-good road movie.
When celebrated food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) announces that he will be revisiting celebrity chef Carl Casper’s now famous kitchen, Carl wants to impress Michel with a new, experimental menu. Owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman) however, is having none of it. The stale menu has been putting bums on seats for years, and if it ain’t broke, you don’t fix it. Michel’s devastating review hits Carl doubly hard as he knows there is truth in it. But he instinctively retaliates, sparking a twitter war when Carl’s 11-year-old son Percy (Emjay Anthon) teaches his dad how to twitter, without emphasising twitters’ limited privacy options.
After an embarrassing public display in the restaurant that is captured on camera and goes viral, Carl quits his job and is shocked to realise that no one is offering him a new one. His savvy ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara, Fading Gigolo) invites Carl along on a business trip to Miami with Percy where her first husband, Marvin (Robert Downey Jr), offers Carl a disused food truck.
This is Carl’s chance to be his own boss and create the menus he wants; menus that can change every day. He decides to cook the food he has always cooked for Percy at his modest flat in Venice, California, but with a local twist. The truck also provides an opportunity for Carl to bond with his son, although scrubbing filthy old industrial pans is not what Percy envisaged. When the two are joined by Martin (John Leguizamo), Carl’s loyal, upbeat Hispanic cook from L.A, his enthusiasm proves contagious and the truck is an instant hit.
Promising Inez that Percy will be back in L.A. for the start of school, the three cooks drive across country with Percy – a one-boy PR company – paving their way with his twitter feeds to an increasing number of followers. Carl’s reputation might have suffered in L.A., but since no publicity is bad publicity he is now a national phenomenon. The truck stops off at all the foodie hot-spots, from Frenchman Street in New Orleans to Franklin Barbecue and Guero’s in Austin to buy local produce and create local menus. Along the way, the audience is treated to enough mouth-watering cooking scenes to give produce an epidemic of virtual heart-attacks.
Like Carl’s limited menus, the film is far from perfect. Scarlett Johansson’s superfluous role as Carl’s colleague, confidante and sometime lover is underwritten; Inez is too good to be true; the road trip grows a bit tedious and the ending is too schmaltzy. Still, there is no denying Favreau is a triumph in a role he researched and rehearsed by cooking and working in food trucks, coached by the king of Los Angeles’ food scene, Roy Choi. Even without some great comic acting, Favreau is corpulent enough to be convincing.
What is disappointing about the film is that there is no regard for the disastrous environmental impact of all these food trucks, with their throw-away plates, cups and containers. Nor do we hear from local restaurants with high overheads and local taxes to pay. Then there’s the high-cholesterol food itself: there’s not a fruit or vegetable to be seen in the truck.
We notice in the Hoy Como Ayer club in Miami that the slender Inez munches on a salad while Carl devours a Cubano sandwich that he later reproduces in his truck. That seems to be a heavily buttered, grilled white roll filled with a thick slab of pork, and melted cheese. When Inez allows Percy to continue working with his dad on weekends and after school, you have to wonder whether that’s a happy ending.