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 close-ups to see how much he fakes. Chef, the back-to-his-roots indie flick from Jon Favreau (Iron Man), is to modern foodie culture as his own Swingers is to '90s swing revival. Favreau's Carl Casper spends as much time in the film cooking as a porn starlet does on her back. He sautés 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.
Favreau's Casper is 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. He is hungry to follow food trends: pork belly, kimchi, carne asada. (Roy Choi, of Los Angeles's famous Kogi truck, was Favreau's technical adviser.) But his nouveau-rustic passions have been tamed by a restaurant owner played by Dustin Hoffman, who only wants Casper to be a brand-name kitchen slave turning out snooze-worthy cruise-ship food.
Eventually, Casper and his former sous chef (John Leguizamo) are forced to launch a food truck that drives across the country serving up honest, simple Cuban fare. 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.