The movie Chef should come with a disclaimer: Do not watch when hungry.
Much like driving, I am not much of a fan of cooking. I’m not half bad at baking – unless my usually blunt friends have been lying to me about the cookies that I bake for them at Christmas – but I have little to no interest in anything else that goes on in the kitchen. Part of the issue is that I don’t really know what I’m doing; when I try a new recipe, I get completely overwhelmed and panicked. Since I mostly am only responsible for cooking for myself, I do that as little as possible and I rely heavily on old standbys that don’t intimidate me or things that I can throw in the crockpot. I find cutting up vegetables tedious and I just don’t have the patience that is required for a lot of recipes. If I could eat out all the time, I would; some of my friends love to cook and find creating new recipes thrilling, but the idea of not meticulously adhering to a recipe is terrifying to me. I have good intensions – one look at my Pinterest boards and you’d think that I love to cook since I save a lot of recipes – but when it comes to actually making most of them, I lose my courage and stick to the few things that I feel confident about making. If you really want to see me in a tizzy, watch me cook for other people. That is pretty much the most stressful thing I can think of doing and I avoid it at all costs; if I’ve cooked for you, I must really, really like you – and there are still plenty of people that I really, really like who will never eat anything I’ve made.
My disinterest and inexperience with cooking usually makes it difficult for me to enjoy any pop culture that is related to the culinary arts; I really tried to get into Top Chef, but I finally bailed on the program because I couldn’t connect with it. Without actually tasting the food, I was at a loss as to what they were doing and why one dish was better than another. Ditto for Iron Chef. Even with programs that are primarily about food that I like – like Diners, Drive Ins and Dives and Man vs. Food – I am only interested in the consumption part of the program. I have no interest at all in the chef’s process or what ingredients are used – that’s all Greek to me and is essentially meaningless. I love to eat and will seek out interesting dishes when I am traveling, but my care factor is zero as to what happened before the food arrives in front of me, barring basic sanitary concerns. For me, meals are all about the destination, not the journey.
I give you this preamble as way of explaining why I was quite surprised at how much I enjoyed the film Chef. Despite the film’s culinary focus and somewhat predictable plot, I thought that Chef was a fun little movie that made me smile. I may not know how to properly sauté or how to properly slice and dice, but I do know my way around pop culture; Chef managed to not only put a smile on my face but it also made me really hungry. Given that, I’d categorize Chef as a bona fide success.
Chef is about…..spoiler alert…..Chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) who has lost his creative spark and love for life. He’s estranged from his wife and child and is working in a restaurant where predictability and profitability are weighed far more heavily than creativity and innovation. After a blow-up with a food critic, Casper decides to give running a food truck a try. In the process, he rekindles his relationship with his son and rediscovers his passion for cooking.
Despite the film’s gastronomic obvious DNA, there were a lot of things about Chef that inherently appealed to me. Though I didn’t know a ton about the film before I finally sat down to watch it, Chef contained five key elements that guaranteed that I was going to enjoy this cinematic experience, despite the fact that a lot of the film is spent preparing or discussing the preparation of food.
- The Cast – it turns out that there are a ton of people that I like in Chef, which always goes a long way in how I feel about a film. I was aware that Jon Favreau wrote, directed and starred in Chef – a promising star as I tend to enjoy him and his work – but I didn’t realize how deep the bench was for actors I like. John Leguizamo? Always a welcome addition. Bobby Cannavale? Awesome. Scarlett Johansson and Dustin Hoffman are in this too? Small parts for Oliver Platt, Amy Sedaris, Robert Downey, Jr. and Russell Peters? This just keeps getting better. Sofia Vergara used sparingly and in a more restrained manner? Icing on the cake. Pretty much every scene featured actors that I find affable and who do good work and that goes a long way. Even the young actor who played Favreau and Vergara’s son was quite good; child actors are always a crap shoot, but Emjay Anthony was quite good and believable. The overall story and script were a little pedestrian and predictable for my tastes, but these actors all elevated the material and created distinct and interesting characters. I enjoyed spending time with these people and they seemed to enjoy spending time with each other. A likable cast is sometimes half the battle. The film also knows how to best deploy these actors – Hoffman and Johansson appear early in the film, but exit stage right at the appropriate time. Robert Downey, Jr. creates a distinctive character in only a few minutes on screen. Sofia Vergara tends to be turned up to 11 in a lot of what she’s asked to do on Modern Family, but in Chef she is more subdued and less cartoon-y.
- The Food – I may not love to prepare food, but the cooking scenes are filmed so well that I could practically taste the finished product. While a variety of meals are prepared over the course of Chef, it doesn’t hurt that the Cuban sandwich is one of the focal points of the film. I only discovered Cuban sandwiches in the last year of so, but I’ve become a pretty big fan in that time. They aren’t readily available or always prepared well in Upstate New York, but when you find one that is made properly it is a delectable treat. If anything, watching Chef made me crave the sandwich more than usual; I may have to start planning a trip to Florida soon to satisfy this hankering. God knows that I’m not going to make a Cuban sandwich for myself 🙂 The fact that the signature dish was something that I was familiar with certainly helped my ability to connect with the film.
- Food trucks – I have an inherent love of food trucks; I’ve frequented them well before they became trendy and started getting shows about them on Food Network. There is a moderately vibrant food truck scene in Albany, though the trucks tend to be fairly predictable in where they can be found. When I go to larger cities, however, I always like to see what food trucks are popular in the area and then use Twitter to try and find them. It’s like a food scavenger hunt! The level of excitement that I experienced at finding the crème brûlée food truck in San Francisco bordered on embarrassing; what can I say – I love crème brûlée. Since I already like food trucks, their prominence in the film was a welcome development to me.
- The Cities – During the course of Chef, the El Jefe food truck travels through Miami, Austin and New Orleans on its way back to Los Angles; it just so happens that Austin and New Orleans are two cities that I am dying to visit, so I really enjoyed the time that the film spent in both locales. Someday I’ll make it to see the sights in person, but until then I relished the virtual cinematic tourism that I was able to engage in. Both cities have a distinctive culinary culture and the scenes in Chef only solidified my resolve to make my way to Austin and/or New Orleans in the new future. I’ve got no beef with Miami – I’m sure it’s a nice place – but the city just doesn’t speak to me like Austin and New Orleans do.
- The Music – Chef has a lot of things going for it, but the role of its soundtrack should not be overlooked. The cinematography is lush and well done, but the music that is used helps provide the film with its flavor. It’s an eclectic mix of music from many genres that I don’t normally listen to, but as the tunes played during the movie I just wanted to get up and dance. Normally the music in movies tends to fade into the background while I’m watching, but in Chef I made a mental note to download the soundtrack when it was over. The music doesn’t overpower the film or become distracting; instead, the tunes that play compliment the action and the story. A well cultivated selection of songs.
Chef is an enjoyable film, but it is far from a flawless one. The story is fairly routine and doesn’t have a lot of surprises. The ending of the film is telegraphed from the very beginning and there isn’t a lot of new ground covered along the way. The final act is not surprising, but at the same time it feels rushed and a little unearned; you knew basically what was coming, but they didn’t put the work in to prevent the finale from feeling tacked on. I generally like films that are a little more complicated or nuanced. However, once you realize that Chef isn’t trying to be anything too innovative and accept the film for what it is, it is still a nice little diversion.
Despite my inherent lack of interest in anything related to cooking, Chef was a pleasant film that I quite enjoyed. A strong cast and an obvious love for the subject matter elevated the film beyond its more meager premise. I’m pretty excited by the idea that Favreau wants to open an eatery based on the film. Even a person like me can appreciate the time and energy spent in filming the food in the film; from the activity in the kitchen to the visits to farmer’s markets, food is almost another star of Chef. The movie didn’t necessarily inspire me to want to become a better cook – let’s not expect miracles – but it certainly made me ravenous after I watched it. Chef is a sweet little movie that I recommend watching….after you’ve had dinner.
Chef is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.