Tribeca Film Festival 2014: Chef

Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) is a chef who loves his work, but his work is starting to consume him. His restaurant’s owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman) is stifling his creativity, and when he is urged to play it safe on his menu, he receives a devastatingly bad review from prominent food blogger Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt). After Carl’s son Percy (Emjay Anthony) introduces him to the joys of social media, Carl accidentally starts a Twitter feud with Ramsey, culminating in Carl confronting Ramsey in his restaurant and throwing a chocolate lava cake in his face. Out of work and short on options, Carl takes a trip to Miami with Percy and his beautiful ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara), and he is inspired to create a different kind of food truck, selling Cubano sandwiches. Together with his former line cook Martin (John Leguizamo) and Percy, Carl takes a road trip through Florida, Louisiana, and Texas, selling their Cubano sandwiches and taking in the local cuisine, and ending their trip in Los Angeles.

Much has been made about Favreau returning to his smaller independent film roots, but watching Chef, I was struck by how big the movie felt. The relationship between Carl and Percy is intimate, but the latter half of the film travels from the streets of New Orleans to the backyard barbeques of Texas. The element of social media widens the expanse of the story even further. Carl’s El Jeffe Twitter feed reaches across the country, and thousands of people are following it. Favreau’s means of representing Twitter interactions visually is creative and unlike anything I have seen before. It shows an understanding of social media, how quickly a moment of public humiliation caught on camera can spread and how quickly a talented chef like Carl can build a brand.

Besides the breadth of the road trip and the social media reach, Chef feels like a big budget movie because of its star power. Favreau has pull with plenty of A-list stars, and he gets actors like Dustin Hoffman, Robert Downey Jr., and Scarlett Johansson to fill out supporting roles. Behind the scenes, Favreau trained with Roy Choi, a chef who became famous for his fusion Korean taco food truck. His training and preparation paid off in all of the cooking and prep scenes, lending legitimacy to his character as a skilled chef. Watching the cooking sequences, I was honestly impressed, not to mention hungry. Favreau even put in time to research food criticism with Oliver Platt’s brother Adam Platt, who is a real-life food critic for New York Magazine.

The central idea of Chef is an artist’s passion for their work and the pressure from investors to play it safe. It is something that Jon Favreau has likely encountered while working on his recent big-budget blockbusters like Cowboys & Aliens and Iron Man 2. He even makes reference to his Disney bosses when Percy asks to go to New Orleans for beignets instead of stopping by Disney World.

The real-life parallel between Favreau and Carl is obvious and intentional. Favreau making a film like Chef is like Carl making Cubano sandwiches in a food truck. They are both talented artists in their own right who want to take pride in their work and deliver a great film or a delicious meal, and like Carl, Favreau works very well when he is given complete creative freedom. Does he always hit the right notes with every single audience? No, but neither does Carl with his failed sweetbreads on the menu. Favreau has seen his fair share of successes and some disappointments, but Chef is a crowd-pleaser. It is a treat of a movie that entertains and encourages its audience to trust artists while charging artists not to betray that trust.

Jun
12
2014
Rachel Kolb • Staff Writer

I love movies, writing, and breaking into song in public. You can follow me on Twitter @rachelekolb or check out more of my work at http://rachelekolb.wordpress.com.

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