I re-watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi a few days before I saw Chef, Jon Favreau’s ode to food and its makers. While these films are certainly different in dish style and form (Jiro’s a documentary), they both focus on the chefs’ love of food. Jiro is about an eponymous sushi chef known for his perfectionism while Chef is about Carl Casper (Favreau), a man so devoted to his food his risks his career and integrity. From the outside, Chef looks like a tasty meal and its first bite is sweet and delectable. But after digging your teeth deeper, Chef loses its flavor and becomes stiff, stale, and generic, the same stuff we’ve tried before.
But enough with the food metaphors (there will be more). Casper, a famous Los Angeles chef, loves cooking but finds himself continuously disappointed with his job and life. He constantly butts heads with his boss Riva (Dustin Hoffman), who wants Carl to stick with a traditional menu instead of experimental, avant-garde food. He also has a hard time connecting with his son Percy (Emjay Anthony) and his ex-wife Inez (Sofía Vergara). After fighting with a blogger critic (Oliver Platt), which goes viral over the Internet, Carl quits his job and starts a food truck selling traditional Cuban barbeque. He takes a cross-country trip with his best friend and fellow chef Martin (John Leguizamo) and Percy to promote his job.
Chef is at its tastiest when it focuses on the cooking aspect. Favreau spends much of the movie on his character making food, which makes for many of the movie’s highlights. Moments where Carl makes complex dishes from tenderloin steaks and chicken to even simpler food like grilled cheese sandwiches are mouthwatering (helped by the close-ups and jump cuts Favreau uses in these scenes). The intense labor Carl takes into cooking shows his passion towards his career: even when he gathers food and equipment for his food truck do we realize how much he loves being a chef.
But while the first hour or so is buoyant, Chef falls apart afterwards. Characters played by Scarlett Johansson and Bobby Cannavale are quickly dismissed and disappear in the second half while the road trip is utterly predictable, focusing on the father-son bond between Carl and Percy. Even the conflict in Chef is minimal: problems are resolved quickly and the ending ties up all the loose ends in a manner that feels disjointed from the rest of the film. It’s as if Chef was supposed to have an extra thirty minutes that got scratched from the movie at the last second.
It’s a shame since Chef is very funny throughout and the banter between Favreau and Leguizamo is quite good (not to mention Robert Downey Jr.’s cameo, which is the movie’s best scene). If only Chef had some stronger foundation to keep it standing tall on the dinner table.