“Chef,” directed and written by and starring Jon Favreau (“Swingers,” “Iron Man”), hits the sweet spot all good Favreau films do. Savvy but not cynical, soaked in atmosphere, Favreau’s return to independent film immerses its audience in its likable lead character’s failures, triumphs and food.
“Chef,” in which creatively frustrated Los Angeles chef Carl (Favreau) regains his form after traveling to Miami and taking over a food truck that he then drives back to L.A., tickles several senses.
The food on screen looks so good you’ll want to taste it. The music’s always playing, whether it’s Cuban rhythms to accompany the food truck’s cuisine or Gary Clark Jr.’s roots music, accompanying nothing film-related but Favreau’s apparent desire to show Clark performing, after the food truck stops in Austin.
Determinedly unhurried, “Chef” – part road trip, part journey of self-discovery – offers scenes of characters hanging out, doing nothing, or hanging out longer than people usually do when doing something.
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Favreau devotes the same care to Carl preparing a Cuban sandwich as he did to that funny/agonizing “Swingers” scene in which his character, Mikey, compulsively keeps calling a young woman he just met. Or to Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) perfecting his Iron Man suit in his home workshop in “Iron Man.”
Favreau sets a scene so thoroughly that plot can seem like an afterthought. In “Chef,” moments of conflict appear wedged in simply for story movement.
A fight between Carl, chef for a high-end L.A. restaurant, and the restaurant’s owner, Riva (Dustin Hoffman), who will not budge on the popular but tired menu, plays as more contrived (and slightly overacted by Hoffman) than heated. It gets its job done in starting Carl’s transition to food-truck bliss, but barely.
A scene in which Carl cooks a grilled-cheese sandwich at home for his son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), says more about Carl’s artistry than any words Carl said to Riva. As Carl grills the bread to a perfect golden brown, Favreau shoots the sandwich from above, the food the clear star of the shot.
Plot-forwarding scenes remain stiff throughout, so you begin to view “Chef” as you would a dining experience in which the food amazes but the service founders. You focus on what’s delicious. In “Chef,” it’s all that breezy atmosphere.
Carl and the guys in his L.A. kitchen resemble restaurant workers we all have known. After hustling through a dinner/adrenaline rush, they head out to smoke together, or to a bar. Bobby Cannavale and John Leguizamo were cast well as members of Carl’s kitchen staff who respect Carl at work but treat him as an equal outside of it. Were these actors younger, the camaraderie might not be as easy to believe.
Scarlett Johansson (from Favreau’s “Iron Man 2”) offers a calming presence as a colleague who works the front of the house and flirts with Carl. Sofia Vergara plays Carl’s ex-wife and Percy’s mother, Inez, bringing to the role the same warmth she exhibits as Gloria on “Modern Family” without the whine.
That these women are or were interested in the husky chef is not the stretch you might think. Carl has a commanding, in-charge presence, decisive in how he speaks, and how he chops vegetables.
But one can be a boss and still be immature. Carl rushes his time with Percy, to whom the expressive-eyed Anthony lends real-kid energy, so he can focus on work. When work doesn’t go Carl’s way, his reaction is part warranted, part tantrum.
Carl’s desire to introduce new dishes to the restaurant, which has had the same caviar-egg-appetizer to lava-cake-dessert lineup forever, meets a stone wall in Riva even on a night that a top blogger and critic (Oliver Platt) is supposed to visit. The critic subsequently pounds Carl, one-time rising culinary star, for a lack of imagination.
The review goes viral, and Carl responds by challenging the critic on Twitter (the social media company is mentioned so often that it is not mere product placement, but a character) to revisit the restaurant. This elicits a new showdown with Riva that leads to Carl’s unemployment, and a face-to-face meeting with the critic – highly impassioned on Carl’s part, recorded by an onlooker – that also goes viral, making Carl an Internet laughingstock.
Platt nails a very specific person: a critic who will eviscerate someone in print or online but turn genial when meeting that person. Platt, real-life brother of New York magazine food critic Adam Platt, lends his character a “Who, me?” shrug that entertains audiences and frustrates Carl.
Sans job, Carl travels with Inez and Percy to Miami, where Carl and Inez once lived, to visit Inez’s musician father (real-life Afro-Cuban musician Jose “Perico” Hernandez). The visit includes a nightclub performance by Inez’s father and a post-gig meal that renews Carl’s love for Cuban food.
The vibrancy created by Miami’s music and art-deco architecture comes to a halt when Downey appears as Inez’s first ex-husband, a businessman from whom Carl obtains the rusted-out food truck. Downey gives off an odd, not-particularly-funny vibe as his character and Carl discuss the truck. It’s the lone plot-moving scene with which Favreau seemed to take his time, and it’s the worst one. Go figure.
But it leads to the truck, site of the movie’s most satisfying scenes, which follow an activity from from start to finish without the usual cuts, offering the viewer a sense of completion rare for a movie. They’re also heartfelt, because they involve Carl not just rediscovering his mojo but bonding with his son, enlisted as a truck cleaner/line cook.
In a single day, Carl and Percy transform the truck from grease-caked mess to gleaming mobile kitchen. “Chef” leaves no step in the cleanup process unexplored as Carl imparts to his son the value of steel wool.
Another scene follows the making of a Cuban sandwich, from pickle placement to sandwich press. This scene inspires equal but opposing reactions in viewers: a sense of activity-specific fullness and an empty-stomach feeling that only a Cuban sandwich can satisfy.