“Chef” Movie Review

    Writer/Director John Favreau makes a welcome return to his indie roots with his highly enjoyable new film “Chef”, a movie experience which will leave each and every audience member craving virtually everything his character whips up immediately after they leave the theater.  I, myself, just finished off a Cuban Sandwich solely because the thought of that delectable creation simply wouldn’t leave my mind until I achieved the satisfaction of devouring one.  If ever a food item would be considered awards worthy for it’s supporting role in a film, the Cuban Sandwich in “Chef” would win hands down.  Sure the characters of whom the story revolves are also outstanding in their own way, but the real stars are the creations carefully prepared in glorious detail by the film’s namesake.  The passion for high level food preparation instantly reminded me of the 2011 documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”, which follows an 85 year old sushi master chef who owns one of the most award winning restaurants in the world.  His dedication to the finest of detail and the highest standards seem to jump right off the screen as he creates mouthwatering sushi in his small Tokyo, Japan location.  Favreau as both the lead actor and writer/director achieves basically the same thing with a fusion of both American favorites, as well as several iconic cultural dishes.  The result is a film truly worth savoring every minute it is on screen.

     As a veteran of both the indie scene as well several notable commercial efforts, Favreau has recruited a solid supporting cast including Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt and Sofia Vergara, plus notable comic turns from Bobby Cannavale and John Leguizamo.  Of course, no other actor in the film is as important to the story as Emjay Anthony, who plays Percy, the son caught in the middle of what seems to be an amicable divorce scenario.  At it’s core, “Chef” explores the importance of a father/son relationship and how it shapes a young man’s formative years.  In the beginning, Chef Carl Casper (Favreau) hasn’t figured this out yet, instead preferring to master the art of cooking and it’s every nuance.  Carl is obsessed with creating.  He spends hours at night perfecting new additions to the next day’s menu, giving up sleep in exchange for the satisfaction that comes with sharing with his co-workers.

     Carl is the head chef at a trendy Los Angeles restaurant, having been recruited by the owner, Riva (Dustin Hoffman) after making his name in the Miami Beach area.  When a famed restaurant critic announces he will be featuring their restaurant on his food blog, Carl moves into high gear and creates a menu he is sure will be met with a rave review and certain popularity amongst his peers within the LA scene.  Unfortunately, Riva will have none of it and insists Carl serves their traditional menu.  When the review comes out and is negative, Carl’s life begins to unravel as he experiences sharp criticism for seemingly the first time.  Making matters worse, he engages in a hilarious Twitter battle with the critic and instantly gains a massive following on the social media site, albeit for the wrong reasons.  Favreau has populated his entire film with a massive dose of the social media infused culture we are currently living in.  Percy himself is only 10 years old and yet he serves as an expert in mass marketing via a number of popular social media sites and is able to teach Carl how to use them from the very basic all the way to advanced levels.  The film is another landmark example of how this type of technology seems to influence our every move, both for the good and the bad.

     Ultimately, Carl is forced to move on and is talked into a business meeting by his ex wife, Inez (Sofia Vergara), with one of her other ex husbands, Marvin, played by Robert Downey Jr..  This results in a trip back to Miami and the opportunity to spend quality time with Percy while his mother works.  The pitch afforded Carl by Marvin is the suggestion to refurbish a food truck with the idea of going back to making the kind of food that made him a celebrity in the Miami area.  This brings me right back to that Cuban Sandwich, which is served exclusively by the truck as it makes it’s way from Miami, across the country to Los Angeles with stops everywhere from New Orleans to Texas.  Favreau composes a number of sequences which serve as the film’s primary action set pieces (It is summer right?).  They include the closeup preparation of perhaps the most indulgent grilled cheese sandwich I have ever seen and follows this with the climactic creation of the Cuban.  The lengths they go to to create the perfectly marinated pork and ham, the right amount of cheese, the way the pickle is cut, the pattern of the mustard, the buttering of the bread, and the process by which all of these ingredients melt together certainly one ups any action sequence you’re likely to see all summer at the movies. 

     A key scene in which Carl teaches Percy a lesson about how important work ethic and a quality product is in their business serves as one of the most important lessons in the film.  As Percy gains confidence working the grill press, he begins to cut corners and ultimately attempts to serve a burnt sandwich.  When Carl catches this and Percy replies “What does it matter? They’re not paying for it.”, the perfect moment for a father to son lesson then presents itself.  In order to succeed in anything, you must put every effort into doing the very best you can, no matter what job or activity.  The fact is, that burnt sandwich may be the one and only opportunity that customer will have to try it and if he’s left with a poor impression, especially because of laziness, how can one possibly establish a career based on subpar performance and bad word of mouth?  I think Favreau has learned this throughout his experiences as both a low budget filmmaker (“Swingers”) and as a studio tentpole director (“Ironman”, “Ironman 2”, “Cowboys and Aliens”).  A filmmaker only has so many opportunities to impress and when you get them, you have to make it count.  “Chef” has all of the ingredients necessary to be considered an exceptional film with a potent mix of crave inducing food visuals, comedy, heart, witty dialogue, laugh out loud moments, but most of all, important life lessons to be learned.  GRADE: A