The Joy of Cooking

(USA, 114 min.)
Written and directed by Jon Favreau
Starring: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara, Bobby Cannavale, Emjay Anthony, Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, Robert Downey Jr.
There is no pleasure in writing a terrible review. Sure, it’s fun to trash empty derivative garbage once in a while, but even that feels like an insufferable waste of time since one could spend those hours seeking out valuable fare. A reviewer certainly finds some level of amusement crafting clever witticisms to make the medicine go down with a spoonful of sugar, but drafting a nasty review never feels as satisfying as crafting a glowing rave that encourages a reader to run out and discover something as value. A level of disappointment underlies harsh reviews, too, since one almost inevitably feels let down when one sees a talented artist fail to deliver upon the standards of which he or she is capable. Bad reviews leave a sour aftertaste for everyone.

A good example for the unsavouriness of the turkey comes in Jon Favreau’s decadent Chef. Favreau stars as Chef Carl Casper, a famed saviour of the Miami culinary scene now serving up trendy eats in an upscale LA eatery. Chef Carl still has the same passion for foodie flair and artistic creation in the kitchen that he had back in Miami, but he’s hampered by the business of the restaurant industry when his restaurant owner, Riva (Dustin Hoffman), makes him play it safe with the menu. Disaster strikes when Chef Carl learns that a prominent critic/food blogger, Ramsey Michael (Oliver Platt), plans to see what Carl is cooking up. It’s an especially significant review for Carl, since Ramsay Michel was the same critic who proclaimed him the saviour of the Miami food scene.

Chef Carl wants to reinvent the menu, but Riva tells him to play his greatest hits. Ramsay Michel, however, roasts them both with a pan. The review is a nasty, snarky grilling of Carl’s lackadaisical servings and the rotten review goes viral in the age of social media gluttony.

Carl then commits the inevitable gaffe of the mature yet ignorant social media user when he fires off a reply. Bloggery witticisms ensue, @ChefCarl starts a social media smackdown to redeem his reputation, and Riva gives him the boot for trying something new. How tasteless!

Favreau gives Chef Carl’s poor reception just the right seasoning, though, by pulling the chef out of the big swanky food chain and letting him get back to basics. Chef Carl, following some good advice from his ex-wife Inex (Sofia Vergara), heads to Miami and starts a food truck with his son Percy (Emjay Anthony) and his former kitchen hand Martin (John Leguizamo). Starting from scratch and working with only with the finest ingredients lets the chef revisit and reclaim the passion that fueled his early success in the kitchen. The negative write-up therefore serves a purpose and Chef doesn’t gloat with its comical portrait of the corpulent critic: there’s actually value to calling out an artist’s staleness because it wakes him up to the restrictions on his creativity.

The joy of cooking isn’t making the same dish day after day: it’s the joy of creating; of trying new flavours and enjoying exciting new tastes. One could say the same for Favreau’s flair working both in front of the camera and behind it, as Chef seems to offer the perfect palate cleanser and return to his indie roots after immersing himself in the repetitive machine of Marvel movies. One could easily take Chef in the vein of Edge of Tomorrow as a metaphor for the star’s career, albeit as a much more satisfying likeness than Cruise’s act of “live, die, repeat.”

Chef offers another mouth-watering course to the delectable menu of food-on-film dishes that 2014 has served so far. Cinephiles inspired by the joy of cooking on display in The Lunchbox, for example, will equally enjoy the scrumptious dishes Chef cooks up. Sizzling steaks, buttery Cuban sandwiches, N’awlins beignets—Chef covers every part of the menu with equal delight.

The added zest of the film is the invigorating pleasure one receives in cooking for others. Much like the sweet love story of The Lunchbox, Chef satisfies by finding a route to the heart through the belly. The art of creating, serving, and sharing is a delight, and Favreau makes the crux of Chef Carl’s story the communal pleasure of breaking bread. Food, as Ramsey Michel’s nasty review suggests, should be something that draws people together instead of making them turn away.

The film easily inspires anyone to whip up something magical in the kitchen, since Favreau adds a running storyline with Carl and his sous chef in training, Percy, as the chef teaches his son the art of being a chef. The father-son dynamic complements the appreciative flavour of manly grilling and BBQ-ing, as the film pulls juicy pork with Guy Fieri-like gusto for macho foods with his smorgasbord of sandwiches, cervezas, and succulent pigs.

 Chef, unlike many foodie films, takes a bit of a cooking show philosophy to culinary skills. Lip-smacking close-ups of food on the grill teaches viewers all sorts of tricks on how best to chop, grill, season, and toss these tasty dishes. Percy’s own keen interest in cooking also lets Carl play the part of a recipe book, for Chef gives any viewer a handy set of steps to make the perfect sandwich.

If the film has a style and energy that perfectly caters to the Food Network crowd, then Chef is equally hip by having both its thumbs on the pulse of social media. Not only does Chef Carl set folks a-twitter with by trading barbs with the blogger, but Percy helps his dad harness the positive aspects of social media by using the Twittersphere to create hype for Carl’s food truck. The trend lets Chef mirror the success that Carl’s foodie contemporaries find in the real world, and Favreau makes the film extra fun by adding the tweets as elements of the ensemble, for Chef is one of few films to incorporate successfully the pop-up imagery of social media and texts as part of the onscreen action.

Favreau cooks up a winner with the fun and flavourful Chef. Sharp writing makes the film warm and funny, and Favreau’s work as director/performer is an equal balance of the same. A strong supporting cast, which includes Favreau’s Iron Man alumni Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson (continuing her banner streak of strong performances), adds a variety of flavours to this gourmet dish. Chef, like the best of meals, leaves one satisfied and wanting more. (Aren’t positive reviews more satisfying?)

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Chef is now in wide release from VVS Films.

What did you think of Chef?