Movie Review: “Chef”

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Movie Review: “Chef”

Posted on: May 17th, 2014 by tommyj

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Life, lava cake and the pursuit of happiness.

Such is the philosophy of Carl “El Jefe” Caspar, the main character from the aptly named “Chef”Jon Favreau’s behind-the-scenes comedic look into the world of a culinary artiste.

However, I must include the following disclaimer before I continue with this review: Do not sit and watch this film with an empty stomach.

If you do not heed my disclaimer, you WILL experience incessant bouts of loud grumbling and acute hunger pangs if you do not have a meal beforehand. And no, pretzel bites and/or  do NOT constitute a meal. I experienced this trauma firsthand, as my corn dog nuggets and SweeTarts became continuously harder to eat with every delicious dish that made its way onto the screen in front of me.

You have officially been warned.

Now that I’ve said this, It’s almost redundant to say that you can smell every spice and taste every ingredient that Chef Carl puts into these menu items. Even miniscule events like Carl slicing up a lime and letting the glistening juices spill out all over the wood grains of his cutting board are presented with succulent and visceral detail. This is the first film since Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott’s 1996 comedy/drama ” in which I almost didn’t make it through due to my extreme hunger. Both films totally encapsulate the passion that dwells within the fingers and between the ears of those who really seem to care about the love that goes into the presentation of delicious food.

But “Chef” might reveal what it takes to become the king of the kitchen, but it also discloses what it takes to maintain this level of discipline and, dare I say, it kicks the gastronomic lifestyle up another notch. BAM!

Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.

“Chef” also attempts to delve into the competitive world that exists well beyond the stove tops and convection ovens

John Lequizamo, Emjay Anthony and Jon Favreau in Chef

of your local eatery. These days, good chefs have the ability to become famous celebrities and book deals, TV shows and their own line of appliances and cutlery are not out of the realm of possibility. Just look at famous personalities like Gordon Ramsay, Guy Fieri and Emeril Lagasse. Seriously though, there’s something called “The Food Network” on television these days.

Therein lies the problem for Carl Caspar (played by Favreau, who also wrote and directed the film as well). No matter how creative he was when he first set foot in the kitchen, the last ten years have been a blur. After gaining critical acclaim and notoriety cooking Cuban cuisine  in Miami, Chef Carl landed a Chef de Cuisine (Head Chef) position at a banal, yet upscale Los Angeles restaurant owned by a controlling, diminutive boss named Riva (Dustin Hoffman relishing the bad guy role)., which might bring him a steady paycheck, but not personal gratification.

The film begins with Carl and his loyal staff (John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale respectively) and preparing for a “big night” (big night, huh? coincidence?). An important and highly critical internet food blogger named Ramsey Michel (Ramsey, huh? coincidence?) is coming in for a meal and Carl wants to cook a “special menu” for him. However, Riva wants him to stick to the same menu that he’s been cooking since he started there ten years earlier. Carl fights him on this, reminding Riva that when he hired him, he told him that he’d have complete creative control in the kitchen. Nevertheless,  Riva convinces him to “stick to his hits,” comparing it to going to see a Rolling Stones concert and Jagger not singing “Satisfaction.” He convinced Carl that if this happened to him he’d “tear the f’in place down,” which is what Ramsey Michel would do if he didn’t get Chef Carl’s “best.” So, Carl decides to stick to his same old menu and NOT prepare the Cuban-inspired pork-heavy menu he was planning.

Bad idea.

When Michel’s review finally comes out he tears Carl a new one, so to speak. Although, he divulges the fact that Carl has been on his radar ever since he first experienced his culinary skills at one of the first Head Chef gigs he had in a Miami restaurant, he calls his latest food uninspired and lazy; referring to the chef as the equivalent of “a needy aunt.” He also believes that Carl’s recent weight gain is the result of him eating all of the dishes that are being sent back to the kitchen. He especially hates the Chocolate Lava Cake and calls Carl a coward for not undercooking the dish to give it its molten center. Needless to say, Ramsey Michel’s disappointed in the experience.

As expected, Carl is pissed. He’s pissed at Ramsey Michel (played with subtle jerkiness by Oliver Platt) for the

John Lequizamo, Bobby Cannavale and Jon Favreau in

personal attack and even more pissed at Riva for convincing him to prepare the everyday menu items. Mostly though, he’s pissed at himself for not cooking with his heart. He takes his frustrations out by staying up all night and cooking, as he prepares the feast that he was going to cook for Michel. However, no one is there to see it or consume it. He is now officially the invisible chef. MET-A-PHOR!!!!

During his current turmoil, Carl is disregarding the things in his life that might inspire him to not only be a better chef,

but to become a better person as well. He ignores the pleas of his 10 year-old son Percy (outstanding newcomer Emjay Anthony) to let him be a part of his life. He won’t even let Percy come to the farmers market with him, let alone shadow him in a busy, noisy, dangerous kitchen. He’s recently divorced from his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara), yet she desperately wants him to “let Percy in” and is still obviously interested in Carl and whether or not he’s truly happy or not.

This is when Inez first brings up the idea of Carl procuring a food truck, but Carl is not yet ready to take that big step. In the short amount of time Percy does spend with his father, he manages to show him how Twitter works and ends up opening up an account for Carl. Upset at Ramsey Michel over his recent comments and unaware that a Twitter comment is public domain and NOT like a personal text/email, he inadvertently sends out the gauntlet to the critic by calling him a few choice names and asking him to come back to his restaurant so he can cook him his original Cuban-infused menu. EVERYBODY AND THEIR MOTHER sees his “invitation” to Michel and Carl becomes the latest thing in the L.A. restaurant scene.

Well, Riva is very happy with the influx in attention and reservations that comes with Carl’s Twitter mishap, but is not-so happy that Carl is cooking a different menu than the popular one. So Riva lays down the law, either Carl cooks HIS everyday menu or he’s fired. I bet you can guess what Carl chooses.

Now without a job, Carl agrees to accompany Inez and Percy to Miami for a much needed break. In Miami, to make a long story short (and so I don’t spoil TOO much), Carl rediscovers the inspiration that he’s been sorely lacking and decides to acquire that food truck after all. Thus begins Carl’s journey (in classic movie road trip fashion) to gain back all he loves about food and what made him truly happy in the first place… all within the confines of his newly renovated “El Jefe Food Truck.”

To call “Chef” a feel-good movie wouldn’t be doing it justice. I mean, for the most part, even “feel-good” movies have

Emjay Anthony, Jon Favreau and Sofia Vergara in

moments of tragedy in them. This is so the eventual triumph is that much sweeter when it finally happens. Not so in “Chef.” Even the scenes that have the most negativity in them feature enough of a positive vibe that they never seem intrusive or manipulative.

From start to finish, I had one continuous smile on my face while watching “Chef.” Some people might refer to a film like this as “cute,” but I beg to differ. I’d say that it’s actually more in the category of “uplifting.” It’s inspirational without trying too hard to be, which is why I consider it to be successful in its goal… which is to put a smile on your face. Not many movies can achieve this kind of success. Or at least not many R-rated movies can.

Favreau has launched himself into another level with “Chef” It’s not so easy to make a film that requires you to use ALL five of your senses. When it comes to food, appearance is very important. I worked for a long time in restaurants and more than one chef has told me that “presentation is like the first bite.” Having said this, taste, smell, texture and even sounds are all equally as important when cooking and serving a meal. Somehow, Favreau manages to convey all of these aspects without resorting to cheap tactics. It’s the passion that Favreau pumps into Chef Carl (with both his writing and his acting abilities) that causes the food to pop-off the screen with flying colors… and smells… and tastes… and you know the rest.

Kudos to Favreau for pulling this off. He’s created a film ABOUT chefs that (I believe) chefs will love. It’s like the Coen

Emjay Anthony and Jon Favreau share an Andouille sausage in

Brothers and “Inside Llewyn Davis.” It’s an artist’s movie about artists, but in this case a musical level. In both “Inside Llewyn Davis” AND “Chef,” the enthusiasm (onscreen and on the page) for the subject matter clings to your soul and leaps onto your brain.

I never realized Favreau had THIS much talent until I watched “Chef.” I knew he had commercial appeal. He did direct “Zathura” and “Elf,” so he has credibility with the kiddies and their parents. And he directed “Iron Man” and “Iron Man 2,” which gives him an in with the Comic-Con set. We’re going to disregard “Cowboys & Aliens” for now, if that’s okay with you, but you get the point.

Now Favreau also can add “Chef” to his growing resume and can place it alongside his performance in front of the camera in Doug Liman’s 1997 indie darling “Swingers” AND his actor/director turn in 2001′s underrated “Made” (what a great flick). I think it’s safe to say that Jon-boy, like his character Mikey from “Swingers,” truly belongs in Hollywood.

Maybe he can start on a new crossover project to bridge the gap between his commercial and indie career.

“Iron Chef Man,” anyone?

Again, sorry, it had to be done.

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