There is a moment early in “Chef” where Chef Carl Casper, played by Jon Favreau, dismisses pandering, predictable menus filled with crowd-pleasing ingredients. Anybody can sell ahi tuna, he tells hostess Molly, played by Scarlett Johansson.
That observation comes during a discussion about whether Casper should take menu risks – and follow his artistic passion but possibly alienate regular customers – or go with safe and successful.
In the movie, the chef plays it safe, and lives to regret it. In “Chef,” writer-director Favreau plays it safe, too, serving a food-centric spin on a classic Hollywood recipe. Cheese-covered bacon-loaded golden brown potato skins are pandering, too. They sell like crazy.
Favreau dishes up a cast of characters whose function is recognizable from their first on-screen moments: Emjay Anthony as cute-as-a-button son who longs for time with his divorced dad; John Leguizamo as trusty sidekick and prep cook; and Dustin Hoffman as a restaurant owner, blunt as a meat hammer. He folds them into a batter of time-honored tropes that hit the pleasure receptors as unapologetically as a chicken finger sub.
After Casper’s thin-skinned chef, a former critical darling, is prevented from cooking the passionate cuisine he has conjured up to refute a particularly nasty review, he quits. He returns to the restaurant to splatter his rage all over the critic (Oliver Platt). Overnight, YouTube videos make him an Internet celebrity, fame far surpassing any notice his cooking skills brought him.
Unemployed and broke, he goes with his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) to Miami with their son. There, he finds himself finally taking Inez up on her long-standing suggestion to let her ex-husband set him up with a food truck. (The ex is Robert Downey Jr., his single scene a slice of hallucinogenic mushroom pizza amid an otherwise straightforward buffet.) So you already know where this is going.
The chef who said he was too good for a food truck ends up cleaning up the truck. With his son and trusty sidekick, he blows the crowd away with Cuban sandwiches and other humble Cuban dishes. His son works on the truck with him in Miami and finally gets to go to New Orleans with his dad, on the food truck. Just like dad taught him about a chef’s knife, he gets to school the old man in the world of social media, and uses tweets and videos and Facebook posts to draw crowds at each food truck spot.
There is a bit of Magic School Bus about this food truck, and its powers to heal human relationships, all the while triumphing over obstacles that would stop any real world food truck dead. There are no Health Department inspections necessary, no licensed commissary needed, none of the gritty details. Apparently you can just drive your food truck into New Orleans, park it in the French Quarter, and start selling food.
The worst red flag is Anthony, a 10-year-old boy, working on the line in the truck. At that point I expected Ms. Frizzle to start working the cash register.
“Chef” succeeds in getting a lot of detail right about the passionate people who sell food for money. A scene where the chef’s top kitchen hands light up as they taste his new recipes, lighting up the chef’s face in return, rang true. The food cinematography is delicious, sensuous food porn that make this an excellent movie to see directly before a long anticipated fine meal.
In the end, “Chef” aims to be a real crowd pleaser, and mostly succeeds. The more you know about the reality of working a food trucks, the more likely it’ll give you indigestion. Most people will cheer at the ending, though, even though it’s more straight-up pandering.
Lots of moviemakers have gotten good mileage out of flawed but likeable characters working their way back to grace. Favreau just tweaked the recipe, like any canny chef, and made it his own.