I admit it, I’m a not just a middle aged social media-hooker, but also a food-porn fan, so the new foodie flick and summer hit, Chef, totally made my day. If you have not yet partaken of this inviting orgasmic, I mean organic visual banquet, put down your spatula, run to the theater and prepare to have a visual feast bound to arouse your senses.
If you are a foodie – or even just dig good food in all its glorious varieties – this summer’s crowd pleaser will make you grin for more reasons than the charming story of a divorced workaholic father (Jon Favreau) re-connecting with his often disappointed young son (Emjay Anthony) who misses out on quality dad-times in the classic divorce-kid reality. The appealing, feel-good plot has top ranked L.A. chef Carl Casper getting two thumbs down by the food world’s evil incarnation of Siskel and Ebert (Oliver Platt), driving Casper to quit his job for the lack of creative freedom enforced by a conservative and controlling restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman). The down and out but eager to re-invent himself chef is gifted an old food truck by an eccentric, wealthy and curious acquaintance (Robert Downey Jr.), and chef Casper, a.k.a. El Jefe, reluctantly takes his son on a road trip from Miami. Joined by his lovable and dedicated sous-chef side-kick Tony (John Leguizamo), the trio drives the gloriously restored taco-truck back to L.A. via various cities known as foodie meccas, serving up greasy, sexy Cubano sandwiches, all while creating a Twitter-frenzy in such a visually clever way on the big screen that it risks tickling and baptizing even the most reluctant social media user.
The casting of sultry Latina diva Sofia Vergara as Casper’s ex-wife is a clever way to sneak in an extra dash of visually sizzling and caliente shapes and sounds, as her curves and outfits are sprinkled throughout the movie with as equal and natural ease as are the many alluring and groovy beats of Latin rhythms (yes, I bought the sound track and am playing it as I write these words). The understated and soothing presence of Scarlett Johansson as Casper’s colleague and casual love interest, Molly, reminds us that sometimes it’s not the spiciest and most colorful dishes, but rather the comfort food that hits the spot.
When writer/director/actor Jon Favreau says his film is “like singing from the heart” he is not only referring to the “mise en scène” of his own childhood experience of bonding with the old man on road trips, because everything that has to do with food is sung from a creative and caring foodie heart in this film. Adds Favreau: “It’s about treating food with reverence,” a sentiment most obvious in the many close ups involving food handling in runs to the farmers’ market, flipping sandwiches on the griddle, or in the slow twirling of the perfect pasta aglio olio served up in the early morning hours after work. From how the greasy cheese melts on the Cubanos to the slicing, dicing, stirring and of course tasting and slurping with requisite moaning, it all basically strikes just the right chords with anyone who’s into food. I’m really not imagining the suggestive links between cooking and erotica, because Favreau’s character actually knows how to find the grill’s slippery “hot spot” for optimal performance. Some critics rant that scenes of Favreau cooking should have been trimmed, but my take is: can I have them in slow-mo replay, please?
I particularly loved how the potentially ugly monster of social media — and the ignorance of its power by the not so old parent (younger than me!) — was cleverly incorporated as a lesson the munchkin could teach his dad. The film’s clever use of Twitter shows that, when used with some entrepreneurial savvy (even by amateurs and kids), it really can make a positive difference. “You’re trending, bro” sous-chef Tony (Bobby Cannavale) says to Casper– who is sending angry tweet responses to his critic into cyberspace without having a clue about how the thing really works. Oh boy is he trending.
Since I used to buy my lunch from a food truck throughout my entire, very long graduate school career on a campus in the boonies, I don’t feel like a novice in the setting; however, I will never be able to look at a food truck the same way after Chef. With its many intimate cooking scenes from inside the food truck pantry, involving meaningful conversations about life and love — such as when Casper says to his son: “I get to touch peoples’ lives with what I do, and I love it! And I wanna share this with you” — I now have a new appreciation for the stories behind each mobile cuisine and the folks inside, as we may find them lined up along boulevard stretches and on street corners.
As it turns out, the initially prickly food critic is not so bad after all; just like the sabra cactus of the Middle East, he is tough on the outside and soft on the inside. He eventually comes around and offers El Jefe a partnership deal so sweet he can’t refuse, and although the ending is a bit too fairy-tale sugary for this real life cynic, it all works because it’s the love of food that seems to bring on all this positive change in the characters’ lives. Just as Puerto Rican salsa king Pete Rodriguez reminds us with Chef’s groovy music score, making us walk away giddy from the experience bopping to the irresistible Latin beat: “I like it like that!” — For this is the movie that makes you feel happy, hot and hungry, and with this tantalizing combo, it’s simply impossible to turn down seconds.
As Israeli chef Bino Gabso, a.k.a. Dr. Shakshuka has said about the fulfilling experience of serving up awesome food: “Beyond knowing how to cook, you have to know how to eat.” Like a great meal cooked up and served with love, Chef is likely to leave you feeling good, and a tad high on serotonin. Bon appétit!