By NATHAN LERNER
For 21st Century Media
For those who aren’t in the industry, “Chef” offers an insider’s perspective on the restaurant and the food truck businesses. It also provides a depiction of a post-modernist American family, which is simultaneously entertaining and poignant.
Carl Casper (Jon Favreau, who also wrote and directed) is a celebrity chef at an upscale Los Angeles restaurant. Carl endures a contentious relationship with the venue’s overbearing owner, Riva (Dustin Hoffman). It is the classic conflict between art and commerce. Carl wants to use food as an expression of his inner artist. However, Riva has a more pragmatic focus on turning a profit.
At his prior spot, Carl had been hailed for his imaginative, cutting edge culinary concoctions by food critics, including uber-blogger, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt). Ramsey is scheduled to review Carl’s latest spot. This triggers yet another dispute between Carl and Riva. While Carl wants to design a special adventurous menu for Ramsey. However, Riva overrules him, insisting that Ramsey be served a standard regimen of traditional favorites.
The result is a disaster. Ramsey posts a scathing review. It notes that he had previously been an ardent supporter of Carl’s imaginative approach. However, Ramsey castigates the most recent meal as dull and predictable. As if that’s not enough, Ramsey’s review includes snide remarks about Carl’s dramatic weight gain.
Enraged, Carl responds with what he mistakenly believes to be a private email. However, he has inadvertently posted the intemperate missive on Ramsey’s widely read blog. Subsequently, Carl confronts Ramsey and has a full-scale melt-down. The volatile outburst is captured on video and goes viral. As a result of the adverse publicity, Carl goes from being a highly touted chef to one who is unemployed and unemployable.
This plot line intersects with one about Carl’s personal life. He maintains a decidedly civil relationship with his ex-wife, Inez (Sofia Vergara). Together, they are raising a 10-year-old son, Wyatt (Emjay Anthony). Although it is clear that Carl loves his son, he has become so consumed with career objectives and neglected some of his paternal duties. This has strained his relationship with Wyatt.
Inez has scheduled a trip back to Miami, where Carl got his start in food preparation. She invites Carl along, ostensibly to serve as a nanny to Wyatt. While there, Inez’s affluent first ex, Marvin (Robert Downey, Jr.) gives Carl a dilapidated food truck to kick-start his floundering career. Carl’s former assistant, Marvin (John Leguizamo), reunites with him in Miami. Together, they plan to drive the renovated vehicle back to the west coast. Inez agrees to allow young Wyatt to join them on the journey. Perhaps, it will help restore Wyatt’s compromised connection to his father.
The trip is full of adventures. These are somewhat episodic. However, as screenwriter and director, Favreau does a fine job of integrating them and sustaining the film’s narrative trajectory. He also elicits engaging performances from his cast. Vergara in particular shines in a role that combines her sultry charms with a convincing sense of maternal devotion. Relative newcomer, Emjay Anthony, provides a naturalistic portayal of a boy, struggling with his parent’s divorce. In more circumscribed roles, Hoffman, Platt, Leguizamo, Downey, Scarlett Johansson, Bobby Canavale, and Amy Sedaris also make worthy contributions to the film.
While Favreau is an avowed foodie, he lacked any formal training in its preparation. To enhance the film’s verisimilitude, Favreau attended culinary school and also trained with the renowned chef, Roy Choi. As a consequence. Favreau is dexterous and self-assured in the myriad cooking scenes. He also conveys a sense of someone who is genuinely passionate about food. To lend further authenticity to the film, Oliver Platt discussed his role with his brother, who happens to be a prominent restaurant critic with “New York” magazine.
This film joins such classics with culinary themes as “Babette’s Feast,” “Big Night,” and “Eat Drink Man Woman.” It features an array of delicious looking meals. After seeing “Chef,” you’ll certainly have a hearty appetite for devouring one.
*** R (for language, including some suggestive references) 115 minutes
Nathan Lerner welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.