Offering both sweet and savoury, Jon Favreau’s latest indie film is a life-affirming and joyous slice of food-porn that journeys into the kitchen and cooks up some entertaining gags. After his involvement in the loud and brash sci-fi western romp Cowboys & Aliens (2011), Favreau returns to his humble roots in indie filmmaking and delivers a refreshing energy in Chef. His hot-headed chef Carl Casper has a promising professional career ahead of him. Promising, that is, until he botches an attempt to impress popular food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) with a menu of uninspired gourmet delights and consequently loses his job. Casting aside the restaurant business, Casper takes to the road in a food van and the film tours the turbulent trials and tribulations of cooking, creativity and fatherhood.
The chopping, dicing, whisking and sizzling of various foods does seem oddly comforting and therapeutic. Favreau’s kitchen comedy channels food imagery from the television cooking genre seen in favourites such as Top Chef (2006-) and Hell’s Kitchen (2005-). Indeed the film is peppered with not-so-subtle gags and the confrontation between Casper and Ramsey Michel that goes viral recalls Gordon Ramsay’s belligerent bemoaning and temperamental tantrums. The film is sensory foreplay for food-junkies, embellished with teasing money shots of mouth-watering cuisine. Shots of food being prepared and cooked is Chef’s equivalent to Michael Bay’s tendency to track down the body of a polished Camaro in the Transformers franchise. While a hefty portion of the film’s run-time is spent divulging lengthy cooking tutorials that can be somewhat, this does not take away from the charisma of the comedy; Chef has plenty of snap, crackle and pop.
Food is not the only ingredient in Chef and the story strives to offer more than just à la carte. Favreau's comedy is a coming-of-age tale about creativity in the professional world as well as the balancing act of familial responsibilities. The film might even be considered a metaphorical snapshot of the filmmaker’s career as he, seemingly exhausted by spectacle-laden blockbusters, finds fun in the smaller things. Casper’s rant at Michel conjures up the critical reception of Cowboys & Aliens that threatened to tarnish Favreau’s reputation. His blockbuster was mocked as a “silly endeavour” by The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, lambasted for its conventionality as mere “popcorn fare” by Slate’s Josh Levin and ridiculed for its “phoniness” by Nick Schager at Slant Magazine. At times Chef may seem like an affront to the film industry. Like any good meal, a box-office-topping blockbuster is made from a tried and tested recipe but Favreau’s film is not so much interested in commercial success than creative pursuits. Gowned in pearly chef-whites and sporting an unkempt goatee, Favreau’s Casper is promptly brushed aside in the age of disposable talent under Hollywood’s prickly thumb but a lengthy road trip helps him to rekindle his creative spark and he finds ingenuity in individuality. Like Henry David Thoreau’s novel of self-discovery Walden (1854), Casper’s van and his time spent serving up home-cooked meals and navigating the diverse cultural districts of America with his son in tow is self-assuring for the cook. Chef comments on how creativity can be found in the oddest of places, even staring down the thick nose of wide-lensed food critic.
Chef certainly has plenty of flavour, accentuated by Favreau’s strong rapport with the cast. Brief cameos and appearances from Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson add a personal dimension to the tale. Favreau proves his worth both behind and in front of the camera. Unlike the predictable clamour of his past blockbuster excursions, Chef offers something distinguished that pleases the palate in more colourful ways.
Chef is in cinemas now.