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 plays Carl Casper, 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.
Casper is hungry to follow food trends: pork belly, kimchi, carne asada. (Roy Choi, of Los Angeles' 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 like deviled eggs with caviar and chocolate lava cake.
After a brutally personal pan by a restaurant blogger (Oliver Platt) who doesn't understand that the owner, not the chef, is calling the shots, Casper blunders into a Twitter feud — and goes viral when he invites the critic to sample his sweaty ass. He's too unstable to find another gig, too smart to say yes to appearing on Hell's Kitchen. So he and his former sous chef (John Leguizamo) are forced to launch a food truck that drives across the country serving up honest, simple Cuban sandwiches.
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. Favreau's 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. If you close your eyes, Favreau sounds exactly like Anthony Bourdain. And when he makes a humble grilled cheese for his 10-year-old son (Emjay Anthony, fantastic), he monitors the sear with a devotion worthy of a Benedictine monk.
After watching Favreau expertly make stacks of sandwiches, it's a surprise when the closing credits footage shows Choi patiently teaching him how to make that first grilled cheese. During a Q&A at the SXSW film festival, Choi said he insisted that the cooking in Chef had to look real — chaotic, cramped, sweaty — and threw shade at fantasy food flicks with artfully arranged pyramids of red bell peppers. Instead, Chef features a rancid roasting pan that could star in the next Saw movie.
Of course, Chef is its own type of fantasy: that a restaurateur can get 10,000 Twitter followers overnight and spin his fame into an immediately profitable independent business. Even the truck itself is a gift, thanks to his ex-wife's (Sofia Vergara) wealthy ex-husband (Robert Downey Jr., repaying the director who made him a $50 million-a-film star with this wacky cameo).
Chef is a crowd-pleaser. It's a romantic comedy between a man and a sandwich, all heart-melting good cheer punched up by some nicely sour jokes. It's also flattery for entry-level foodies who feel special when it pays tribute to a restaurant they know. As the food truck tweets its way from Miami to L.A., it stops to snack at New Orleans's Cafe du Monde for beignets and Austin's Franklin's Barbecue for brisket. (At the latter, the SXSW crowd applauded, and owner Aaron Franklin smiled from his reserved seat.)
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 that 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.