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What it's actually like be a professional chef has been so grossly exaggerated and so hamfistedly portrayed in non-documentary movies that verisimilitude has become an almost moot point. For celluloid years, all you needed to be a chef was a toque, et voila, a chef you were. When you weren't working normal hours on the line, you lived in a huge apartment, and you had free time, and you were well adjusted. Thus Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart faffed about in No Reservations, for example. Being a chef seemed a thing that was uncapturable on film. But Chef nails it.
Thus, in addition to being delighted and moved by Jon Favreau's new movie Chef, I was surprised. Favreau — the Iron Man producer and former Swinger who wrote, directed, produced and starred in the film — succeeds where so many have failed before him. It was a good thing too, with so direct a title. It's not Chefesque or Chef Who Lives At Home. It's just Chef.
There's no mystery to how he nailed it. In the run up to the film, the food media universe — this site included — has been breathlessly following Mr. Favreau's preparations: he staged with Roy Choi, he consulted numerous chefs, he kept his head down and worked on the line. His secret to getting it right wasn't his genius. It was just putting in the time.
Instead a plot point play-by-play, here are some of the things Chef gets right.
Tension Between Restaurateurs and Chefs Is Systemic
Favreau plays Carl Casper, a Miami-born, Los Angeles-based chef working at one of those semi-trendy French restaurants in Brentwood that are always crowded not because man is attracted to adventure but because man is attracted to crowds. Casper does not own the place, he is an employee. The owner, Riva, played by Dustin Hoffman, similarly cares not for adventure but for the bottom line.
When a well-known reviewer named Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) visits, it precipitates the conflict between Riva and Casper. Riva wants Casper to cook the old favorites like French onion soup and molten lava cake, which keep the crowds coming in; Casper himself yearns to give full voice to the creativity that landed him the gig to begin with.
Their argument is so common, blunt and believable one almost forgets they're having it in front of a room full of A-list actors: Scarlett Johansson as a hostess named Molly, John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale as part of the kitchen brigade.
Because everything these days should be put in terms of R > G, it also tidily embodies the notion that capital and labor must always battle and that, at least in our system, capital often wins. Riva is looking to maintain his wealth; Casper is looking to gain his. Guess who triumphs? Molten chocolate lava cake it is. Casper is gone.
A Chef's Forearms Are Scarred, His Knuckles Are Sausage, But His Fingers Are Nimble
There's a scene in the latest Thor where Chris Hemworth is washing off the blood on his hands shirtless. You'd think they'd have running water on Asgard but they don't. It takes the camera about 45 seconds to pedestal up his massive forearms to his massive biceps except you realize those are just his forearms, then to his actual biceps and then what you take to be his shoulders but are actually just another part of the bicep you didn't even know existed. Anyway, it's both a bullshit and a no-bullshit shot. Bullshit because it's a bullshit neg to humanity. No-bullshit because Hemsworth did, for at least a few weeks of his life, look like that.
Similarly, there's an early montage in Chef where various kitchen prep actions are being executed with professional skill. A zucchini is sliced in super speed. A pig is broken down with precision cuts. Herbs are chopped at 1500 rpm. And the man doing it is a chubby fingered actor named Jon Favreau, the actual guy. Unlike Thor's torso, his is a skill we all could achieve, if we cared. What's great about Chef is it was clear he cared.
From that opening sequence to throwaway shots of making a potato cake or of his burn-scarred forearms, Favreau, as an actor, did the work to make Casper, the character, come to life. It's impressive. I mean, all De Niro did was gain weight; all Bale does is lose it. Favreau developed, over a rather short period of time, some serious chops. Half the charm of the movie is knowing he cared.
Sometimes Reviewers Are Dicks, But They Are Often Right
Michel's review of Casper's food — or really, Riva's food — is predictably a pan, and not just a pan but a personal attack. Michel not only shits on the cuisine but fat-shames Casper as well.
As a critic I can attest to sometimes being a dick. Right before I became the New York Observer restaurant critic, another (unnamed) critic told me, "Always write pans. They get the most hits." So the pressure is there to be a dick. Dicks get clicks.
But, as Michel's review shows, often it's the tone of the critique that is questionable, not the underlying message. In fact, it is Michel's creative destruction that gives rise to Casper's ultimate triumph. Though I do have a selfish interest, I think Chef quite well illustrates the virtues of an adversarial chef-critic system. The customer is he who benefits.
Chefs Read Eater
Because everybody reads Eater.
Many Chefs Live in Shit Holes With Nice Kitchens
Chefs do not live in lofts with Bang & Olufsen equipment, Bouroullec sofas and Vitra shelves. Many live, like Casper, in crummy stinkholes where the only area kept orderly is the inappropriately large and well-endowed kitchen and the only reading material — besides bills — is a copy of Lucky Peach.
Women are Woefully Underrepresented in Professional Kitchens
Sadly, they too are woefully underrepresented in this one. The kinder sex appear here only as a beautiful hostess (Johansson) wooed into the sack by a well-made pasta, or an angelic ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) who bankrolls her ex-husband's food truck. (Oh yes, Casper gets a food truck.)
But in neither the truck nor at the Brentwood restaurant are there any female cooks on the line. Oversight? Verisimilitude? I bet probably a bit of both.
Being a Divorced Father Is Really Hard
The reason I spent nearly the entire movie choked up wasn't because Jon Favreau accurately captured a dinner service. The heart of the film is his relationship with his 11-year-old son Percy, of whom he has joint custody. [I think he's 11 in the movie. Feels that way to me.] The movement is from neglect to care. It is a really heartbreaking and tender arc. It's the thing that turns Chef from a good food movie to a great movie.
As both a child of divorce and a father of two young boys on the brink of it, it was like I was living both sides of the relationship. I could understand the necessity of leaving an unhappy relationship, as well as how profoundly that necessity just doesn't matter when you're eleven.
The relationship between Casper and his son Percy (Emjay Anthony) is one of those rare relationships on film that seems to genuinely touch the heartbreaking tenderness of what it means to be human. There's one scene when Casper buys Percy his first chef's knife that contains more depth of feeling in 30 seconds than most movies pump out in an hour forty-five.
Chefs are Loveable, Perhaps Too Loveable
So yes, I'm not afraid to admit I watched the entire fucking movie choked up. It's where I am right now. That said, it's also where I was because Favreau has created a really loveable cast of characters. You love them all; want them all to be happy. They are, ultimately irresistible.
But therein is also my bone to pick. At the end of the film — which I won't give away here — everything works out. And by everything I mean everything. Every loose end in his life has been made into pretty knots, without bite nor bitter end. Well, shit, that's not how life works.
I almost feel Favreau fell in love with his own character, like Pygmalion did Galatea. He couldn't bear to see anything go wrong for him. Thus we're left with slightly too sweet ending. It's as if we were being put to sleep blissfully but in the last moment, realize the deal. It's too late to resist, of course, you're already a goner. But the artifice is laid bare. You can hardly blame Favreau though. It's impossible not to melt, like a molten chocolate lava cake, by the charms of Chef. Why should its creator be immune?
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.