Favreau cooks up a tasty, sweet-natured delight in ‘Chef’

McClatchyMay 23, 2014 

Favreau: Directed, stars in and wrote “Chef.”

Jon Favreau makes “Iron Man” movies and crummy blockbuster comedies. What’s he doing getting his cooking chops down and creating “Chef,” a mouthwatering culinary wish-fulfillment fantasy?

Take this film — which he wrote, directed and stars in — as a metaphor for his career. “Chef” is Favreau’s most personal film since “Swingers,” an overlong comedy full of his food, his taste in music, his favorite places and a boatload of his favorite actors.

And the actor Favreau brings his A-game patter to this romp about an embattled Los Angeles chef, once celebrated, now in a rut, who has to take a road trip in a food truck to find his soul, and his food, again.

Chef Carl Casper’s big night at the swank Galouise eatery is ruined by the passive-aggressive owner of the joint.

“Be an artist on your own time,” Riva (Dustin Hoffman), the owner, whines. Stick to “your greatest hits” menu.

That’s how Carl gets the bad review from the cranky online food critic (Oliver Platt). Carl’s kid (Emjay Anthony) introduces him to Twitter. Big mistake. Carl insults the guy.

That leads to a flame war and that, in turn, leads to Carl’s shout-down/meltdown in the middle of the restaurant. He’s out of a job and he’s infamous, thanks to the viral video of his hissy fit.

It’s time to take stock, not make stock. It’s time to find what made him passionate about food, to remind himself that he can “touch people’s lives” with his cooking. It’s time to go to Miami and maybe crank up a food truck.

“Chef” has adorable, PG-13-worthy, father-son bonding, with Favreau really clicking with the kid. It has a wonderful supporting cast, with fellow cooks played by John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale, the restaurant manager/hostess played by Scarlett Johansson, Sofia Vergara as Carl’s party-planner ex-wife, and Robert Downey Jr., leaning into the sort of eccentric wordplay that only Favreau brings out in him, as another ex-husband of Vergara.

All of it comes off, thanks to wonderful early scenes that establish Favreau’s comfort in the kitchen, his steady hand with a knife. He seems at home in this world and relishes explaining what makes it special.

The food is mouthwatering: calamari to die for, squab, even a work-of-art grilled cheese sandwich that he stoops way over the grill to make, as we’ve seen Emeril, Mario and Gordon Ramsey do on TV, every one of his senses committed to getting it perfect.

Carl shudders at the idea that he’s now suitable for a role in a Ramsey reality show. (“Hell’s Kitchen” is pitched; they must have meant “Kitchen Nightmares.”)

And knowing what it means when a chef gives a young cook his first knife is touching.

The “wish fulfillment fantasy” here is the whole overlong rosy-road-to-redemption part of the movie, which tries to sell us on Carl’s utter ignorance of social media, and his 10-year-old hooking him up and making him a star. That stuff — the idea that any true chef would not realize how hot the food truck movement is — and several abrupt, illogical leaps in the plot are the only sour ingredients in this delightful, savory comedy.

It’s nice to see Favreau can still bring it once he’s put down the comic books and the soul-sucking blockbusters they demand. Welcome back. Now, let’s eat.

CHEF

* * * *

Cast: Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Emjay Anthony, Scarlett Johansson, Bobby Cannavale, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Downey Jr., Oliver Platt

Director: Jon Favreau

Running time: 1:53

Rated: R; language, including some suggestive references

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