[ Director: Jon Favreau; Screenwriter: Jon Favreau; Starring: Jon Favreau, Sophia Vergara, Emjay Anthony, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jr., John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Plat, Amy Sedaris; Running time: 114 minutes; Certification: 15 ]
As Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo and Emjay Anthony sit around a bench chewing on a slab of beautifully cooked beef to a chorus of “oohs” and “mmms”, I couldn’t help but think of Randy Marsh in that episode of South Park when he longs to be a chef, staying up late to pleasure himself as he watches the food network. Indeed, that’s what much of Chef is; salivation over delicious food and impressive cooking sequences (a phrase which can’t be mustered up often), both of which quickly force you to regret ever watching the film on an empty stomach.
Yet the heart of Chef lies elsewhere. While ostensibly and unarguably a film about food and one man’s creative passion for it, what it’s really about is the bond between a father and son. The second and third acts find Carl Casper (Favreau’s chef) and his son, Percy, travelling between states in a newly acquired food truck (provided to him by Favreau veteran Robert Downey Jr. in one of the film’s inevitable standout scenes). Having felt disconnected ever since Carl went through a (clean) divorce with Percy’s mum, the trip proves to solidify their relationship and allow them both time to learn new things about one another. As Carl inspires Percy with his passion for cooking, Percy impresses Carl with his enthusiasm and knowledge of, strangely enough, marketing, as he sends their truck into a viral explosion on twitter. On occasion the “technology is witchcraft” idea is played a little strong, with Carl often acting like a pensioner seeing a lightbulb for the first time, and the animations of twitter birds flapping off into the ionosphere are moderately distracting, but generally it works rather well.
The lasting impact of Chef really comes from that relationship, which is both well played and well written. The script in general is impressive; sure it’s a bit perfectly worldy, but it gets away with it because we really believe what the characters are saying to each other; the genuine edge to the conversations, the dialogue which often sounds refreshingly real rather than tailored for drama, mean when things fall together just a bit too perfectly we’re willing to roll with it rather than guffaw at unrealistic sentimentality. On top of that it’s full of sharp wit and smart ideas, and it’s funny, too – perhaps not belly-aching, but it’s not really trying to be.
While the pace occasionally drops, particularly during the opening act as the narrative gets a little too comfortable labouring along, for the most part Chef will succeed in lifting your spirits. Just like its eponymous main character, the film always has its most fun while cooking; those sequences are fun and sprightly, akin even to musical numbers, and you’ll rarely find yourself without a smile on your face, yet it’s some of the more paternal, familial themes that ground the film and end up leaving the greatest impact. If nothing else, it will inspire you to go home and cook up a beautiful meal…and then decide you can’t be bothered and just crack on some toast.