Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) is a master chef who does not tolerate any criticism of his food. When he unthinkingly responds to a negative social media review by critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), it goes internet viral and he loses his job. With no job and a family falling apart, he decides to buy a food truck to get his career and life back in “Chef.”
It is nice to see Jon Favreau break away from his helming of such blockbusters as the “Iron Man” franchise and “Elf.” With “Chef,” he eschews big budget special F/X and production and tones his work down to a more personal level. The show begins as Chef Carl is mustering his kitchen staff of Ravi’s (Dustin Hoffman) restaurant to prepare for the return visit of food critic, Ramsey, who, ten years earlier, had declared Carl chef of the year. The critic is less than impressed when he is served the exact same meal a decade later. Ramsey’s negative online review prompts Carl to strike in the only way he DOES NOT know: Twitter.
Chef Carl’s ignorance of how social media works causes the gauntlet he throws down to go viral and he insultingly invites Michel to come back and try his new menu. Ravi, though, does not want to rock his culinary boat and orders Casper to prepare his old menu. Carl refuses and loses his job. Meanwhile, his ambitions and career have caused Carl to keep his estranged young son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), at arms length, frequently breaking their father-son dates. Carl realizes that his life must change and he needs to get back to basics – in the form of a food truck.
What begins as a life crisis for Carl as he tries to find a new job and rekindle the relationship with his son (and maybe even Percy’s mother, his beautiful ex-wife, Inez (Sofia Vergara)), becomes an adventure and road trip that injects new life into the moody chef. Jon Favreau creates a real life-like character in Carl that is fully dimensioned and very sympathetic. Young Emjay Anthony, as Percy, is believable and, like Carl, a 3D character. You root for the father and son as they try to find each other once again.
The supporting cast is an embarrassment of riches with Sofia Vargara looking sweet and lovely as Carl’s ex – you root for Nez and Carl getting back together, too. John Leguizamo is terrific as the loyal sidekick, Martin, who quits his well-paying sous chef job to join Carl and Percy on their cross country culinary adventure. Bobby Cannavale is amusing, though under-utilized, as Carl’s friend and former sous chef who took his place at Ravi’s restaurant. There is also Scarlett Johansson as Molly, the restaurant savvy sommelier and Carl’s once-lover, Hoffman, Platt, and Robert Downey Jr. as Nez’s ex-husband (after Carl) and Casper’s financial manager, Marvin. All do quite well in their small, but funny roles.
Even though Favreau covers a lot of very different terrains, story-wise, he has a relaxed but steady pacing that allows “Chef” to build to a nice, happy crescendo. What could have been a simple father-son bonding road movie is a complex weaving of personalities, ambitions and emotions. It also belongs in the pantheon of great films about food – think “Tampopo,” “Babette’s Feast” and “Big Night.” I give it a B..
Chef Carl Casper (writer/director Jon Favreau, "Iron Man") has been one of L.A.'s bright stars, but after 10 years at Gauloises, he's feeling in a rut. With critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), whose blog was just purchased by AOL for $10 million, about to visit, Carl wants to up his game, but owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman) insists he stick with his greatest hits. The resultant review is scathing and after a twitter fight and viral video meltdown with Michel, Carl decides to take his ex-wife Inez's (Sofía Vergara) offer of a trip to Miami with their son Percy (Emjay Anthony, TV's 'Rake,' winning) to regroup. After one terrific cubano sandwich, Carl finally goes along with Inez's idea to use her first ex Marvin's (Robert Downey Jr.) offer of a food truck and his culinary star rises once more as he rides back across the country in "Chef."
It's refreshing to see Favreau take a time out from big budget summer tentpoles and reapproach his roots in a smaller, character driven film. While "Chef" is bound to formula with its father-and-son-bonding, rising-from-the-ashes road trip tale, Favreau is in complete command, creating comfort food seasoned by a master chef. The man did his homework, having visited many of L.A.'s top dining spots in his IFC series 'Dinner for Five,' then, for this film, working incognito in L.A.'s popular Kogi BBQ truck and his chefery on display here will likely have friends and neighbors angling for dinner invites.
One of the smartest things Favreau does is pair his food with regional sights and music, stopping in Miami's Versaille Cuban restaurant and a Little Havana nightclub where Percy's grandad performs before hitting New Orleans's Cafe du Monde and Austin's Franklin Barbecue and Guero’s. He blends the role of social media in restaurant culture with the father and son bonding experience, Percy teaching dad how to tweet, then creating buzz for the El Jefe Cubano truck with twitter, Facebook and Vine. He's also got John Leguizamo on hand as his old grill chef and friend Martin, who hops on a plane to Miami to support Carl's new endeavor, leavening the sweetness of Carl and Percy's time together with some humorous guy behavior. And while Percy proves himself on 'the line,' mom's calls from back home begin to hint that her and Carl's divorce may have been premature.
Favreau's obviously called in his "Iron Man" chips with the presence of Downey Jr. as an eccentric monied businessman (it's a bit unclear why he happens to have an '88 Chevy taco truck to give to his marital successor) and Scarlett Johansson as Gauloises' floor manager and former romantic dalliance. Also on hand are Bobby Cannavale as a Gauloises cook and Amy Sedaris as a PR rep who wants to turn Casper's notoriety into a 'Hell's Kitchen' payday. But this is Favreau's show and he's terrific here - demanding, temperamental yet insecure and lovable. Sofia Vergara may play the most perfect ex-wife ever, but she and Favreau convince as a couple who share a zest for life. Also top notch is Platt, whose reactions to food and furor are priceless.
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