Chef, the back-to-his-roots indie flick that Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Iron Man 2) just premiered at SXSW, is to modern foodie culture as his own Swingers is to '90s swing revival. Favreau plays Carl Casper, a culinary bad boy, barreling egotist and divorced father with a chef's knife tattoo stretching down his right forearm and "El Jefe" across his knuckles.
Casper is hungry to follow food trends: pork belly, kimchi, carne asada. (It's clear that Kogi's Roy Choi was Favreau's technical adviser.) But his nouveau-rustic passions have been tamed by restaurant owner Dustin Hoffman, who only wants him to be a brand-name kitchen slave turning out snooze-worthy cruise-ship food such as deviled eggs with caviar and chocolate lava cake.
After a brutally personal pan by a restaurant blogger (Oliver Platt) who can't get that the owner, not the chef, is calling the shots, Caspar blunders into a Twitter feud, which goes viral when he invites the critic to sample his sweaty ass. He's too unstable to find another gig, too smart to say yes to appearing on Hell's Kitchen. So he and his former sous chef (John Leguizamo) are forced to launch a food truck that drives across the country serving up honest, simple Cuban sandwiches.
Watching an actor play a chef is like watching an actor play a pianist. You're not just watching a kitchen scene - you're closely scrutinizing the closeups to see how much he fakes. Favreau spends as much of the film cooking as a porn starlet does on her back. He sautées with confidence, minces with skill and artfully arranges a bowl of pasta even when serving it in bed to the hostess (Scarlett Johansson) he sleeps with on the sly. If you close your eyes, Favreau sounds exactly like Anthony Bourdain. And when he makes a humble grilled cheese for his 10-year-old son (Emjay Anthony, fantastic), he monitors the sear with a devotion worthy of a Benedictine monk.
After watching Favreau expertly make stacks of sandwiches, it's a surprise when the closing credits footage shows Choi patiently teaching him how to make that first grilled cheese. During the SXSW opening night Q&A, Choi said he insisted that the cooking in Chef had to look real - i.e. chaotic, cramped, sweaty - and threw shade at fantasy food flicks with artfully arranged pyramids of red bell peppers. Instead, Chef includes a rancid roasting pan that could star in the next Saw movie.
Of course, Chef is its own type of fantasy: that a restaurateur can get 10,000 Twitter followers overnight and spin his fame into an immediately profitable independent business. Even the truck itself is a gift, thanks to his ex-wife's (Sofia Vergara) wealthy ex-husband (Robert Downey Jr., repaying the director who made him a $50 million-a-film star with this wacky cameo).
Chef is also flattery for entry-level foodies who feel special when it pays tribute to a restaurant they know. As the food truck tweets its way from Miami to L.A., it stops to snack at New Orleans' Cafe du Monde for beignets and Austin's Franklin's Barbecue for brisket. At the latter, the SXSW crowd applauded, and owner Aaron Franklin smiled from his reserved seat.
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Chef is a crowd-pleaser. It's a romantic comedy between a man and a sandwich, all heart-melting good cheer punched up by some nicely sour jokes. The opening-night audience devoured the film, devoured the Cuban sandwiches at the afterparty and congratulated Favreau, who walked around contentedly smoking a cigar.
With its gags about Twitter and food truck - triggered flash mobs, in 10 years it'll feel as dated as the '80s nouvelle cuisine in American Psycho. But for today, the irony is Chef is so charmingly middlebrow that it's exactly the cinematic comfort food it mocks: Favreau has made not a game-changing meal to remember but a perfect chocolate lava cake.