I suspect there is nothing serendipitous about Jon Favreau’s “Chef” opening right at the beginning of another summer season full of superheroes, monsters, gigantic robots and aliens, computer animated films, and raunchy comedies about immature men and women. Favreau himself directed one of the most successful summer movies of the 21st Century: the first two “Iron Man” films. Granted, he also directed the deadly dud “Cowboys and Aliens.” You could easily argue that “Chef” acts as a palate cleanser for him. It’s back-to-basics filmmaking, the kind that made him such a hot commodity in Hollywood after writing and co-producing “Swingers” in 1996 and directing “Made.” In 2001.
Favreau stars as Chef Carl Casper, once the star of Miami’s culinary scene and now the chef of a trendy Los Angeles restaurant who seems to be stuck in a rut. As the film opens, Carl prepares for what should be his biggest night: renowned food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) is visiting the restaurant that evening. Carl is working on a new menu to impress the critic but the restaurant owner (played with arrogant glee by Dustin Hoffman) orders him to stick to the menu.
Playing it safe earns Carl a truly nasty review that he takes quite personally. When his 11-year-old son Percy (Emjay Anthony) opens a Twitter account on his name and shows him how to use it, Carl makes the number one social media mistake of engaging his critic in a flame war that goes viral. Carl invites Michel back to the restaurant but, after another confrontation with the restaurant owner, Carl quits. Later that evening, Carl goes on the rampage and confronts Michel at the restaurant; the encounter is caught on video and it, of course, also goes viral.
His ex-wife Inez (Sofía Vergara) asks him to travel to Miami with her and Percy and, while in town, reconsider her first ex-husband’s offer (played by a deliriously ADD Robert Downey, Jr.) to buy from him an old food truck and go back to basics. After a dinner at the legendary Miami restaurant Versailles, Carl decides to follow Inez’s advice and reinvent himself as a purveyor of Cuban sandwiches and other Cuban goodies. With the help of Percy and his former line cook Martin (John Leguizamo), Carl refurbishes the truck and, thanks to a paint job courtesy of Martin’s Miami contacts, renames it El Jefe Cubanos. The plan is to drive back to L.A. with a couple of stops in New Orleans and Austin. The food truck gives Carl the opportunity to reconnect with his son in ways that he couldn’t before.
There is so much that Favreau gets right about this milieu: the role social media (Twitter specifically) plays as a promotional tool, how most chefs truly live, the speed at which ingredients are cut, the controlled chaos of a kitchen, etc. Favreau did his homework: this world feels lived in, real. The food may be deliciously shot but what delighted me the most was the sheer joy the mere act of preparing and cooking it brings, especially if it involves something as deceitfully simple as a grilled cheese sandwich or a cubano.
You could almost compare the act of directing with cooking. They both involve finding the right ingredients, and preparing, cutting, mixing and matching them until they produce a tasty dish. Sometimes the poor quality of those ingredients or their clumsy preparation may result in an unsavory dish. But with “Chef” Favreau has concocted a beautiful recipe with ingredients that deliver the right Latin-tinged flavor.
The cast is one of this recipe’s key ingredients, their performances consistently strong. There is not a single false note here: not from Leguizamo, not from Bobby Cannavale as Carl’s L.A. sous chef, not even from Sofía Vergara who finally overcomes the cartoonish stereotype she has been playing for far too long and delivers an understated performance. The rapport between Favreau and Anthony is so natural that you believe they could be related. Add to this recipe a soundtrack full of great Latin and blues songs and some mouth-watering dishes and you have one of this year’s most delightful, sincere and heartfelt surprises at the movies.