Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) is the head chef at a restaurant. When respected food critic, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), is set to come to the restaurant, Carl uses his passion for cooking to come up with some exciting new dishes to serve him. Restaurant owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman) wants Carl to go with the classics. The dishes that have been popular at the restaurant for the past decade. When Ramsey goes on about how tired the meal was, Carl doesn’t respond well. When his coworkers Martin (John Leguizamo) and Tony (Bobby Cannavale) mention the criticism on Twitter, Carl, new to the social media scene, strikes back. This probably wasn’t the best decision.
Stuck in the middle is Carl’s son, Percy (Emjay Anthony). Carl’s dedication to his craft leaves him little time to spend with Percy. Fortunately for Percy, Carl and his ex-wife, Inez (Sofia Vergara), have a very friendly relationship. Inez frequently tries to discuss Carl and Percy’s relationship with Carl, hoping to get him to be a better father.
While on a trip to Miami, Inez sends Carl to another ex, Marvin (Robert Downey Jr.) so Carl can get a food truck from him. Carl reluctantly agrees. He and Percy put in a lot of time and effort to get the food truck usable. Martin, who has heard of Carl’s new venture, flies to Miami to help Carl get the food truck up and running.
Once Carl’s food truck is finished, Carl, Martin, and Percy drive the truck back to Los Angeles, making stops along the way, selling their Cuban sandwiches, with Percy running a social media blitz, unbeknownst to Carl.
Written, directed and starring Jon Favreau, Chef is a retelling of a story we’ve heard many times. A negligent father needs to learn how to be the father his son needs. Yet, this film presents it with a heart that most movies of this type lack. Getting back to his indie roots, Jon gives us a movie that probably wouldn’t have been possible with a large studio attached.
It isn’t often you see Jon Favreau in a starring role. He proves he’s up to the task as Carl’s passionate about food, yet technologically inept chef. As with many of this generation, Carl doesn’t quite grasp how things work online. Jon, who is no stranger to Twitter, sells Carl as someone jumping into the medium in a fit of anger. He also trained in real kitchens with real chefs to make his performance authentic. Every move he makes is deliberate. Precise. And exactly what you would expect from a well-seasoned chef. From slaughtering a pig to making a grilled cheese sandwich. An all around great performance.
It doesn’t hurt that Jon surrounded himself with an excellent supporting cast. Scarlett Johansson and Bobby Cannavale don’t have huge roles, but they make the most of the moments they have. Robert Downey Jr., one of my all time favorites, has a relatively minor part, as well, but it couldn’t have been more well done. You get enough of the Downey charm to make it easily one of the funniest scenes in the movie, yet not enough that it gets overdone and becomes the Robert Downey Jr. Show. Enough to tease the palate and leave a good taste in your mouth.
Then there is John Leguizamo. This role suits him perfectly. It very easily could have been John Leguizamo playing himself in this role. He pulls it off so naturally, adding the right amount of levity to the film.
Probably the most surprising performances were by Sofia Vergara and Emjay Anthony. Sofia would be easy to cast as a sexy, maybe not the smartest ex-wife, there just for eye candy. After all, this is the role most are used to from Modern Family. She plays that character very well, but it was nice to see more of a sophisticated role in Chef. What is hard about putting kids in such a central role, is that they’re kids. Often, the performances look like kids waiting for their turn to recite their lines. Emjay Anthony doesn’t fit that description. As Jon said in an interview, when they cast the kid, they were looking for a kid who didn’t look like he was acting. I think they made a great choice.
The film is light and upbeat, but not so much so that it becomes fluff. The story has a natural flow. At no point does it get bogged down. The cast has a great chemistry. All of the real moments, even the funny ones, come about organically. It doesn’t feel forced. Much like Carl, you can feel Jon’s passion for his craft. It’s almost as if Carl’s demand for creative control and rejection of the “establishment”are echoing Jon’s choice to go without a major studio for the film.
It would be easy for Chef to get lost among the huge summer blockbusters. But it is a refreshing change of pace from what you expect from a summer movie. You don’t want to miss this one.
If you haven’t read Jon Favreau’s discussion of Chef from the New York Film Critics Series, you can read it here. It was interesting to get his thoughts on the film.