There are surprisingly few great films about food. Sideways, kind of. Ratatouille, if you can count a movie about an animated rat in a list of films about food. Silence of the Lambs?
Chef can now steak a claim (pun intended) to be one of the definitive culinary movies, featuring food-porn worthy of an M&S advert intercut with a touching, sharply scripted – if ever-so-slightly hackneyed – story about following your dreams, juggling creativity and reality, and finding one’s self.
Actor/director John Favreau plays the eponymous chef Carl Casper, a Los Angeles haute cuisine magician who was once the belle of the foodie ball. But somewhere along the line he lost his razzle-dazzle; he’s now a middle-aged divorcee with a kid he barely knows, running a kitchen that plods along on the strength of his former glories. His creative drive remains but the locals expect the same dishes week-in week-out (his attempt to introduce sweetbreads – “guts” as his boss describes them – resulted in no orders whatsoever). As the proprietor (Dustin Hoffman) explains: “If you went to see the Stones and they didn’t play Satisfaction, you’d be disappointed, right?”
Things come to a head when an oily food writer (a wonderfully bemused Oliver Platt) dubbed the “most powerful critic in the town” pens a scathing, not to mention personal, missive. A sorry chain of events involving Twitter and a molten chocolate lava cake ensues, the upshot being that Caspar is a) A dubious YouTube star and b) Unemployed. In true indie-movie fashion, Caspar responds by renovating a decrepit food-wagon, driving it through iconic American locales, including New Orleans and Houston, and flogging Cuban sandwiches, rediscovering his mojo in the process.
Chef follows in the footsteps of movies like Little Miss Sunshine, with the road-trip providing a neat metaphor for Caspar’s personal journey. But it isn’t an indie movie: it’s directed by the guy behind Iron Man, one of the most profitable franchises of all time. Favreau – who is brilliant as the bolshie but fragile chef, filled with doubt and a glassy-eyed self-pity – commands a big enough budget to cast Scarlett Johansson as a front of house girl. She’s great, but the size of the part seems a little below her. He also calls in Robert Downey Jr (star of Iron Man) as the ex-husband of Caspar’s ex-wife, resulting in one of the best comic turns of the year.
There are parallels between Caspar and Favreau – both are former darlings of their trades who became subsumed into the establishment – but for the most part Chef is a molten chocolate lava cake of a movie: soft centred, comforting and entirely satisfying. It’s worth every one of its five (Michelin) stars. Just don’t go to see it on an empty stomach.
First published in City A.M.