Chef is Jon Favreau‘s under-the-radar cult hit about a successful chef who quits his position running a kitchen under a controlling owner and starts a food truck. The film sees Favreau acting and directing again and, after meticulous training under famed food truck chef Roy Choi, he seems to bring to life something that many films about professional chefs resort to borderline parody to recreate.
The practical romance of excellent food preparation and the demanding role of restaurant work is usually coaxed out of actors by going off of what one would think Gordon Ramsey would yell on a reality show, but in Chef, the explosive kitchen atmosphere is on display only when it’s coherent to the story. It’s a well-balanced portrayal in many ways because it focuses on more than just ups and down, more than the basic struggles we can expect to pop up in a kitchen. We get to see the gritty details and slow methodical work that builds the layered tastes and feelings that give us so much simple pleasure in food.
The main character, meanwhile, is brought to life by more than just Favreau himself. A stellar supporting cast and well-built relationships allow him to be a well-rounded, consistent character. His intense drive and sharp wit are made soft and pleasant by his relationship with his son and amicably divorced wife. The connection between the world of his young son and his more classic “old school” world is bridged by social media and virality, new concepts to an older generation. He slowly discovers his son’s novel world.
Favreau’s kitchen life and the lonely pursuit of culinary mastery are filled out by a kitchen full of fleshed-out personalities that vibe with him in a way that hints at an even greater off-screen chemistry. It is a cast that never steals the spotlight, but that shines individually. Many of the cast members have worked with Favreau before and after this film, which is a crucial and powerful element in making us care deeply about the main character, even if on paper he wouldn’t stand out much on his own.
The food photography is handled with amazing tact, never over-glamorized like an advertisement. The foods’ beautiful imperfections are preserved and it is all allowed to stand on its own two feet, with a minimum amount of help from the camera, but effective enough cinematography to accentuate what is there. Creative use of the limited space of the truck and a light, easygoing tone are the marks of a seasoned director. Favreau brings out the big picture in a simple way, while using precise blocking to make the space and action lively, open, and booming when needed, and tight, small, and cramped at other times. The colorful palette and humor sprinkled throughout keep the script from feeling too serious, but it never cheapens the subject matter.
The film is never just a movie about food culture, and while its foothold remains solidly on the local culinary arts, it simultaneously becomes a commentary on the paradoxes of value. When Favreau’s character’s freedom is unleashed and he begins to cook for himself, his food comes alive again. His drive begins to come from from how his craft touches other people’s lives, instead of his previous need to have his cooking liked. The genius of this is that the chef serves others by serving himself and finally finds his bliss outside of simple recognition. This allows him to get back to the essence of what he wanted to do in life and cements the larger ideas in the quest to be sensational both for yourself and for others. The film has the fingerprints of someone who has been fighting the good fight for a long time and who spreads out the road map for us to see the journey.
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