That Eli Roth's cannibal film The Green Inferno played as a trailer to Chef appeared to be a good omen, but Jon Favreau's foodie film, of which he serves as writer, director, and star, is a chain restaurant movie — serving up fare that is reliable, if not spectacular.
The story revolves around Carl Casper, a chef anointed the biggest thing going in the L.A. food scene, but that was 10 years ago, and where Casper sees beauty in the greens of a bundle of beets, his boss, Riva (Dustin Hoffman), sees it in the greens of a bundle of money brought in by customers who've been coming back for the same decade-old menu.
A visit by an important critic finds Casper and Riva at odds. Casper wants to try something new and exciting, Riva wants to play it safe by serving the same old scallops and lava cake. The chef gets slammed by the critic, and what follows is a violent confrontation (one that is filmed and goes viral) that leaves Casper without a job and doubtful about his future. Thrown in the mix is the relationship Casper has with his 10-year-old son, who yearns to spend more time with his dad.
As a food film, Chef never reaches the heights of 1994's Eat Drink Man Woman, but it does capture the giddiness as seen in 2009's Julie & Julia of creating and sharing a meal so fine that the mood is electric. And, if the film doesn't quite make you want to be a chef, it will certainly make you want a sandwich.
It's clear that Favreau did his homework. It's seen in such foodie flourishes as the Lucky Peach magazine in Casper's apartment and the appearance of culinary stars like Aaron Franklin of Austin's Franklin Barbecue and Roy Choi of the Kogi BBQ Taco Truck in L.A. At one point, Chef becomes a road-trip movie, with Casper, his right-man, and Casper's son driving across the country, from Miami to L.A., in a food truck. The trip serves as a primer for Casper's son — Cuban sandwiches in Miami, beignets and muffulettas in New Orleans, and Texas barbecue in Austin. (Interestingly, there is apparently nothing noteworthy foodwise between Texas and California.)
The film is well served by its supporting cast. Scarlett Johansson is Casper's sympathetic and (duh) sexy sounding board, while John Leguizamo adds humor and energy as Casper's sous chef. There's a cameo by Amy Sedaris as well, stirring up memories of the fantastic Jerri Blank as the too-tan, not-hearing-a-word publicist. The film's biggest laughs, however, go to the brief though wonderfully weird and awkward scene with Robert Downey Jr. playing the ex-husband of Casper's ex-wife.
It's ironic, then, that another of these supporting roles points directly to the chief weakness of Chef. Hoffman, as the nervous restaurant owner, does not want to try anything that stretches the imagination. And while Favreau's character fights the static, Favreau as a writer and director does not push the boundaries. There are at least three musical interludes (two too many), and the ending, while pleasing, is about as pat as they come. Ultimately, Chef feeds you just enough to be satisfied.