The new movie Chef is about a hotshot cook who loses his way and then finds himself anew selling Cuban sandwiches off a truck. The food-cart-as-spiritual-salvation trope became a pop-culture cliché a couple years ago: Jason Segel did exactly the same thing with tacos in The Five-Year Engagement, and Michael Ealy peddled pork in Think Like a Man. If purification-by-Cubano were all there was to Chef, it would be pretty thin gruel.
Chef turns out to be far more interesting, though, because it’s not really about a chef or a food truck at all. It’s nothing less than a cri de coeur about the high-wire act of living on the Hollywood A-list, a bulletin from the front by its writer-director-star Jon Favreau.
The soulless and routine menu Favreau’s chef is presenting to diners at his L.A. eatery is a perfect parallel to the soulless and routine films Favreau himself made immediately before this one—the dreadful Iron Man 2 and the unwatchable Cowboys & Aliens, which would cause any sensible person to think it was time to go back to the drawing board.
For the glory days of the chef’s gritty street-level cooking in Miami, before he took L.A. by storm, you can substitute Favreau’s spectacular debut as writer-actor with the low-budget indie Swingers in 1996, as well as his first Hollywood directorial triumph at the helm of Will Ferrell’s Elf in 2003. And the chef’s food truck, which reignites his creative spark? Why, that’s what Chef is supposed to be for Favreau.
In one sense, then, Chef is just another lamentable example of what the critic Todd McCarthy called the “west-of-the-405” movie—films like James L. Brooks’s Spanglish (2004) and Judd Apatow’s This Is 40 (2012) that ask their viewers to share the suffering and hardships of the insanely rich and gorgeous and famous residents of Los Angeles’s most glamorous neighborhoods. (Adam Sandler’s protagonist in Spanglish is a chef riven with anxiety about his upcoming review, just like Jon Favreau’s is in Chef.) Insufferable navel-gazing by people who should wake up every morning thanking God for the improbable bounty that has rained down upon them is what makes the west-of-the-405 the third-worst genre in the history of the motion picture, after the snuff film and porn.
But Favreau proves cannier and more self-knowing in this regard than Brooks and Apatow were, and unlike those two disastrous films, Chef is a true crowd-pleaser. It sizzles, the way the chef’s fried sandwiches do. The chef is of unknown ethnicity, but his loving ex-wife is a Cuban from Miami (played by the impossibly gorgeous Sofía Vergara), and the movie is awash in Latin music and culture.
More important is Favreau’s portrayal of the lives of these kitchen workers as workers. The chef is a working-class guy, as are his sidekicks (played winningly by John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale). They labor with their hands and they like it. They are skilled and confident and respect each other because of their mutual competencies.
When the chef’s 10-year-old son joins him in the food truck’s kitchen, he has to learn quickly that this is a serious business in which you actually get burns and cuts and bruises—and your job is all-consuming and all-important. This is the first movie in ages in which a father is shown teaching his son how to
master a trade, and it’s thrilling to watch.
Favreau is a terrific actor who manages the difficult feat of conveying both soulful sensitivity and a big man’s obnoxiousness. He has written a terrific part for himself and some truly juicy small roles for Dustin Hoffman (as his onetime boss), Robert Downey Jr. (as the flake who gives him his food truck), and Scarlett Johansson (as the girl who would be his girlfriend if he didn’t still love his ex-wife).
In the end, this isn’t a movie about cooking. It’s really a movie about how Twitter is making life harder for Favreau and his friends in Hollywood. Just as bad social-media buzz destroyed Cowboys & Aliens long before it opened, Chef features a restaurant review that somehow goes viral.
Favreau’s chef doesn’t understand Twitter or how it works, so without knowing it, he starts an out-and-out flame war with the critic—and ere long is letting the critic have it for his savage cruelty to people who are working their hearts out in the kitchen in a public rant that is seen by everyone on earth.