I should give a disclaimer first: I am not a chef, but I do have an incredible admiration for them. If you have joined me at one of my dinner parties, you know I have a passion for flavor and ensure every element goes off without a hitch. I am also not a film critic, but I am married to a film producer who was a film critic for 24 years. We’ve spent years of seeing films and discussing the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of them. I feel qualified enough to write a review of this film.
Earlier this week, I had a chance to see Chef.The film opens today in theaters throughout the city. FYI: I’m attaching a spoiler alert to some of the content in my notes. I attended the screening as a guest of the studio.
The film, written, directed, and starring Jon Favreau, portrays a bored chef. He’s stable but indifferent in his career, one that started out bright with positive recognition from critics. Oliver Platt plays The Blogger. He loves Chef’s early stuff, but later calls him out for serving food that lacks passion.
Through a heated exchange with restaurant owner, played by Dustin Hoffman, Chef loses his cool and quits. He can’t stay away. In a hilarious scene, Chef returns to the restaurant and flamboyantly chews out The Blogger.
The lost and uninspired Chef travels to Miami with his ex-wife, played by a charming and always smiling Sofia Vergara. If you’re a fan of hers you will be even more so; if you aren’t you may get hooked. They bring along Chef’s 10-year-old son who is desperate for a true relationship with his father beyond going for ice cream and roller coaster rides.
Eventually, Chef finds a new home, a food truck, and begins to create simple, delicious food influenced by the local ingredients. His sous chef in the truck is played by John Leguizamo. Predictably, everything gets wrapped up into a nice and pretty bow at the end, but the theme of relationships carried throughout the film kept the film interesting.
You get a glimpse of what it’s like for a bored chef who has to interact with his back of the house team who look to him for inspiration and guidance. When the Chef is up, everyone excels. When he’s down, they have to watch their own backs.
The relationship between an acclaimed chef and a restaurant owner is tricky. The Hoffman character appreciates the chef’s desire for creativity, but has a restaurant to run, and needs first and foremost to please his customers.
The relationship the chef has with The Blogger (this character was never referred to as a food writer or a critic, which I find odd. I suppose it’s a statement on the our current everybody-is-a-critic social media driven society and the power of a food blog, not a traditional outlet such as a newspaper, magazine, or a professional guide to determine the fate of an individual like a chef.
Also interesting was the changing father-and-son relationship that takes place when they take off across the country driving their Cuban sandwich food truck from Miami to LA . (They make a stop in Austin at Franklin Barbecue.) Their struggle to connect is familiar to professionals who face of trying to balance a quality home life with a dynamic career.
But mostly, the film highlights the amazing relationship we have with food. When I hear people say “food is fuel,” I do not understand. We all have food memories that will stay with us forever, like when I smell pot-roast with carrots and potatoes, it takes me back 30 years and into to my grandmother’s kitchen. This film gets a bit campy with a few first bites memories. Especially when Chef takes his son to Cafe du Monde in New Orleans for his first bengeit. They share a touching moment between father and son just enjoying hot, fried dough with lots of powdered sugar in the French Quarter. The campiness is shattered when Chef takes his son to Franklin Barbecue for his first taste of burnt ends, a heavenly, first time food memory will stay with you for life.
I seek out great food movies and no, this is not Big Night or Babette’s Feast, but there are select scenes where you can feel the soul of who this chef wants to be. How making a simple plate of pasta, dripping in olive oil and garlic and filled with fresh parsley, is the best aphrodisiac that the chef can give the adoring restaurant hostess, played by an understated Scarlett Johanssen. The satisfaction of turning fresh herbs into vibrant chimichurri or salsa verde; of buying fresh produce at the farmer’s market from the guys that grow it; of breaking down an entire pig from tail to snout; of creating food that you dream about from simple ingredients with authentic flavors. I get the world we live in now, where extravagance and austerity make waves, where liquid nitrogen and foams are the norm, but at the end of the day don’t we all want a perfectly grilled five-cheese sandwich, perfected by Favreau with the help of consulting chef and food-truck master, Roy Choi.