Jon Favreau’s charming comedy about a chef trying to carve out a living accomplishes exactly what it needs to: It makes your stomach growl, your mouth water and your brain vow to track down the nearest medianoche as soon as you leave the theater.
Lately, Favreau has been concentrating on big-budget blockbusters — Cowboys & Aliens, the first two Iron Man movies — and his return to this smaller-scale film as director and screenwriter, and now as star as well, is a real delight. It might not be exotic, like the meals its lead character longs to create, but it’s the cinematic equivalent of comfort food: delicious, filling and capable of making you happy and content.
Favreau plays the celebrated chef Carl Casper, who runs the kitchen in a swank Los Angeles restaurant. Carl is an ambitious guy, and when he hears a famous food blogger is coming to try out his fare, he decides to make the guy a meal he won’t forget (legit restaurant critics usually dine incognito, but the script requires this conceit, one of its few missteps). Problem is, the owner (Dustin Hoffman) insists Carl’s menu offer only the tried-and-true, popular fare: caviar with an egg, lobster risotto and, God forbid, molten chocolate lava cake. Never has a film gotten more laughs out of that particular dessert, and Chef is definitely going to make you feel like an idiot should you ever order it again.
The unadventurous dinner bombs, of course, which leads to a series of events — including an inadvertent and hilarious Twitter war with the critic (Oliver Platt) — that ends with Carl losing his job. His empathetic ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) offers him a distraction: Travel to Miami with her and their 10-year-old son (Emjay Anthony). While she’s working, he can bond with the kid, whom he too often neglects.
Also thrown into the deal: She’ll hook him up with her other ex (Robert Downey Jr., who makes every second of his brief time on screen count, as always). He can provide Carl with a bit of salvation in the form a food truck.
The truck turns Chef into a bit of a road trip movie, but even then the concept feels fresh because Favreau doesn’t solely focus only on the expected father-son bonding. He’s also interested in the details of running a successful food truck: the intricacies of making the perfect medianoche; the social media showmanship needed to lure customers; the easy flow that develops between people cooperating to a common end.
This second act of the film also acts as a small but effective travelogue of foodie hot spots. Locals will recognize Versailles on Calle Ocho — Favreau fell a little in love with Miami when he visited Hoy Como Ayer while filming Iron Man 2 — but New Orleans and Austin, Texas, also pop up along the way. Everything from the Cuban bread to the beignets and the brisket will make you salivate.
Favreau worked hard to replicate an authentic restaurant world, and it shows in every frame that involves chopping, dicing, slicing, sautéing or otherwise cooking (he also finds an ingenious way to visually portray Twitter, so vital in the marketing of food trucks).
All the elements are there: the rapport among the kitchen staff on a big night; the joy and self-expression found in hard work even when you’re so busy you barely have time to look up; the nurturing sensuality inherent in making food for someone else. You never wonder why an average Joe like Carl has an ex-wife who looks like Vergara after a scene in which he whips up a late-night meal for the restaurant’s hostess (Scarlett Johansson), with whom he’s been canoodling. He has seduced her before she even takes the first bite.
Your only question is: When is someone going to cook like that for me?
Cast: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara, Bobby Cannavale, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, Emjay Anthony.
Writer-director: Jon Favreau.
An Open Road Films release. Running time: 115 minutes. Language, including suggestive references. Opens Friday May 16 in Miami-Dade: South Beach, Paragon Grove, Sunset, Dolphin; in Broward: Paradise; in Palm Beach: Palace.