This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 11th May 2014
The first rule of watching Chef is: have a meal before you go. In this mixed-genre of a movie – something which sits strangely but happily between a cooking show and a feel-good family story – scenes of food preparation are shot as lovingly as those involving Sofia Vergara’s sensuous curves. Your mouth will water throughout and you’ll be racing to buy a toasted Panini press as soon as the credits roll.
The second rule of Chef is: manage your comedic expectations. Yes, it is written, directed by and stars Jon Favreau (once the star of breakout indie hit Swingers; nowadays the director of Iron Man), and sure, there are plenty of light moments – but while it’ll have your stomach rumbling, belly laughs? – not so much.
Carl Casper (Favreau) is an innovative restauranteur whose professional confidence is crushed like broken biscotti by the words of a critic. (As an aside, I admit to shifting somewhat uncomfortably in my seat during the moments of well-acted distress Casper displays as he reads out the bitter tirade against his endeavours. Striking a balance between public service warning and gratuitously biting review is a critic’s burden. But so and anyway…)
The ensuing butting of heads with his patron (a sage and understated Dustin Hoffman) posits an interesting cheffing dilemma for Casper, and doubtless one which resonates with cooks everywhere: if what you’re doing works, how much of a risk dare you take to branch out into something new? Since they can’t agree on a philosophy, Casper finds himself starting over in the culinary world and decides to open up a food truck. Dedication to work, however, must be tempered by obligation to family, as Casper negotiates the benign but distant relationship he has with his son, Percy (a terrific breakout role for Emjay Anthony, wise beyond his years and more than holding his own against the bigger actors).
Every bandwagon deserves to be hijacked, and so our current love of cooking shows gets the big-screen treatment. And it’s taken very seriously. The photography is so rich in colour and substance, you can practically smell the cheese grilling; as Casper talks his son (and us) through the intricacies of preparing authentic Colombian fare, you almost want him to pause so you can take notes.
Appropriately, a lively script and universally energetic performances bounce through the nearly two hours as Casper is schooled by his son on the vagaries of social media (an hilariously perceptive lesson about how to use Twitter does provide some of the laugh-out-louds) and enlists the help of sous-chef John Leguizamo (Moulin Rouge) in setting up his mobile shop. A typecast Sofia Vergara plays Casper’s improbably lovely ex-wife but her warmth, like the good intentions of a scene-stealing cameo from Robert Downey Jr, render the film so feel-good you will overlook the clichés. Even Casper’s relationship with Scarlett Johansson’s maitresse d’ is differentiated from usual rom-com sleazery by his cooking up a plate of pasta when normally sex would ensue.
If you strip away the expectations of its being a comedy, Chef is actually a nicely-written, well-paced, personal drama. The father-son dynamic is delightful, and it’s a pleasure to see, for once, estranged parents who support rather than criticise each other. It’s only when unnecessary strawberry topping is poured over the narrative at the end, you wish the chef had been smarter – but you’ll still clean your plate, regardless.