- Aldamisa Entertainment
By Giancarlo Buonomo, Summer Managing Arts Editor
Published June 25, 2014
There’s a moment about 15 minutes into Jon Favreau’s “Chef,” where Favreau’s character, Chef Carl Casper, makes a plate of spaghetti aglio e olio for his restaurant’s hostess Molly (Scarlett Johansson). They’ve decided that they can’t keep sleeping together, but eating together is an acceptable substitute. The camera alternates between birds-eye views of gently sautéeing garlic and hot pepper, and close-ups of Carl’s tattooed, scarred hands chopping parsley. It was the first time I’d ever seen this plebeian dish, one I was raised on, showcased in a film. When Carl pulled the pasta out of the water and finished it in the sauce, I couldn’t contain myself. I grabbed my male companion’s knee, squeezed it like a semi-ripe tomato, and blabbered to him “He finished it in the sauce! He finished it in the fucking sauce! I’ve made that a million times and he made it exactly right!” He gently but forcefully removed my hand and told me to turn it down a few notches, but agreed that we were witnessing something very special.
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Maybe I’m just a weirdo, but I have a creeping suspicion that if you go see “Chef,” and you really should, you’ll have at least one comparable moment. In fact, I’m almost certain, because of what “Chef” is — a gloriously overflowing plate of a movie, stacked high with wit and emotion, and without even a teaspoon of cynicism.
Here’s the basic premise. Chef Carl Casper, critically lauded in his early career, is in what he euphemistically terms “a creative rut.” He’s the executive chef at a popular LA restaurant, run by the stodgy, business-oriented Riva (Dustin Hoffman). Carl wants to cook a (literally) gutsier menu, filled with beef cheeks and sweetbreads, but Riva insists that they stick with boring customer favorites like chocolate lava cake. Furthermore, Carl’s long hours prevent him from spending enough time with his son Percy (EmJay Anthony, “It’s Complicated), who lives with his mother, Carl’s ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara, “Modern Family”).
Of course, this situation is as unsustainable as ExxonMobil. Renowned food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt, “X-Men: First Class”) writes a scathing review of the restaurant that quickly goes viral, and Carl has meltdowns over it on both Twitter and the floor of his own restaurant. Fed up with just about everything, and claiming that he needs “a job, not money,” he does something crazy — he buys a dilapidated food truck in Miami, and morphs it into “El Jefe,” a freewheeling culinary lab that specializes in soulful Cuban food. With his old line cook Martin (John Leguizamo, “The Counselor,”) and Percy working alongside him, Carl finally has a suitable, and portable, outlet for his passions.
Like the great chef he depicts, Favreau makes this film delectable by intensely focusing on the little details. I’ve never seen a film that depicts food and the food world as well as this one. The cliché nature of ahi tuna on menus, the habit of harsh reviews going “viral” on Twitter, the idea itself of a food truck … these are all recognizable talking points of foodie culture, endlessly discussed on blogs and in the pages of Lucky Peach magazine.
But even beyond these technical minutiae, “Chef” does a wonderful job of portraying the pure, near-pornographic pleasures of good food. There are too many money-shots to enumerate, from cubanos frosted with butter and placed on a sandwich press, to humble carrots and radishes. They nail the specialties of each locale as well: A fruit stand on Little Havana’s Calle Ocho, Café du Monde’s famous beignets in New Orleans, beef brisket in Texas.
“Chef” is unabashedly, even aggressively, feel-good. That’s a big risk to take when making a food movie, because you risk glorifying the hedonism, while glossing over the gritty reality of cooking for a living. Favreau deftly avoids this problem by glorifying the grittiness. His character isn’t a sensitive artist in a clean white chef’s jacket. He’s a Dionysian craftsman, a chain-smoking food lover with a tattoo of a chef’s knife on his forearm and a total commitment to his profession. Through him, we learn to love the speed, danger and all-around madness of the kitchen, and beam alongside him when his son burns his hand while working on the line, but keeps on pushing orders out.
“Chef” is a lot of things. It’s a goofy road-trip movie, a hopelessly romantic drama, a deep exploration of the world of gastronomy and a triumphant affirmation of pleasure in all forms. It’s big in every way, but also full of wonderful little moments. Before you go see it, just make sure your house has a full fridge and clean sheets. You’re going to come back with an appetite.