Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Jon Favreau
Stars: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Emjay Anthony, Sofia Vergara, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, Bobby Cannavale, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey jr, Gary Collins.
Food, glorious food! There have been lots of films like Julia And Julia, Eat Drink Man Woman, No Reservations, the romantic comedy Simply Irresistible, and 1996’s Big Night that have mixed drama with fabulous, mouthwatering food and complicated family relationships, and Chef joins that short list. Chef is an unexpected cinematic treat.
Jon Favreau leaves behind the special effects driven big budget action of Iron Man and the fanciful Cowboys And Aliens for this low key but thoroughly enjoyable and more personal film. Part road journey and part tale of a father bonding with his estranged young son, Chef is an unashamedly feel good film that should prove a crowd pleasing treat for even the most jaded palate.
Favreau, who wrote and directed the film, also stars as renowned chef Carl Casper, who works in a popular and upmarket Los Angeles restaurant owned by the officious Riva (a small but telling role for Dustin Hoffman). A visit from Michael Ramsey (Oliver Platt), a mean and feared food critic and blogger, is the catalyst for a career change for the veteran but volatile Casper. A disagreement with Riva over the menu for the night and a scathing review for his bland fare sees Carl suddenly out of a job. And a twitter war of words that erupts between Carl and the critic that goes viral puts paid to any hopes he may have of working again.
But Carl is thrown a lifeline when his ex-wife Inez (Modern Family‘s Sofia Vergara) suggests that he accompany her to Florida for a visit. Carl meets Marvin (Robert Downey jr), another of her ex-husbands, who convinces him to take possession of a beaten up old taco truck. Carl fixes it up and drives it across the country. He is accompanied by his estranged 12-year old son Percy (Emjay Anthony, from the US version of Rake, etc) and his former assistant Martin (John Leguizamo). Thus begins a road journey from Florida to California with Carl dishing out some spicy Mexican food and Cuban sandwiches along the way, while Percy uses his knowledge of social media to promote the trip. Not only does Carl find redemption but he also rediscovers his passion for cooking.
There is plenty of great scenery to admire during the road trip, and the landscapes have been beautifully photographed by cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau (who worked with Favreau on Cowboys And Aliens, etc). Favreau handles the material in a leisurely fashion that allows audience time to identify with and empathise with the characters. And it’s also obviously that he feels more connected to the material here than he did with big budget, mainstream but impersonal fare like Iron Man. In fact, Chef takes him back to the more independent vibe of his earlier films like Swingers, and finds him full of energy and fully engaged behind the camera again.
Favreau must have opened his phone book and called in some favours, because he has attracted a solid cast that includes Bobby Cannavale, Hoffman, Downey jr and even Scarlett Johansson to fill even smaller roles here. Leguizamo is often sidelined to lesser supporting roles as the sidekick or comic relief, but here he plays a well developed and three dimensional character that allows him to remind us that when given the right role he is a very good actor. And there is some great chemistry between him and Favreau.
But the real standout is young Anthony, who is a natural talent and a real charmer with great screen presence. Hollywood has a habit of churning out lots of talented young performers and then chewing them up in the process. Let’s hope that Anthony can find many more good roles.
The soundtrack features some infectious Cuban music from Perico Hernandez, and there is also some great blues from guitarist Gary Collins, who was recently out here for the Byron Bay Bluesfest. The film also lists 22 producers, which must be some kind of record.
This is a labour of love for Favreau, who deftly mixes the various ingredients of the usual cliches of the road trip genre and some heartfelt family drama for a satisfying experience. There are a few patches in the early sections of the film when the pace lags a little and there are also moments when the material becomes a little overly sentimental. But once Carl and crew hit the road in his humble food truck the film comes alive and is a delight to watch and savour.
Some of the food concocted throughout the film will have your mouth watering, and it is probably not a good idea to see Chef on an empty stomach. Or at least have reservations in a nearby restaurant.