A master chef in the kitchen but an incompetent newbie when it comes to social media, Carl Casper (Jon Favreau, right) starts a Twitter flame war despite the warnings of his saucier Martin (John Leguizamo, far left) and sous chef Tony (Bobby Cannavale), accidentally setting in motion his own downfall and eventual redemption in Chef, a comedy about the joy of cooking and other things, written and directed by Favreau.
House special: Click on the photos above and below for video side dishes.
I expected Chef to examine the sometimes competing values of art and work, how to balance the urge to create and the need to make a living, the idiosyncratic natures of families and friendships, and, of course, the joy of cooking and eating good food.
I didn’t expect a satirical disquisition on the problematic benefits of social media, how to and how not to Twitter, and how, used intelligently and with real heart, as opposed to sentimentality, Vine can be a major force for good.
YouTube turns out to be another matter.
Written and directed by Jon Favreau and starring Favreau as the chef of the title, Carl Casper, Chef chronicles one crucial summer in Carl’s life as he tries, fumblingly and not quite determinedly, to get his once stellar career back on track by giving up haute cuisine to make and sell sandwiches off a food truck.
Up to some point shortly before the movie picks up, Carl seems to have had a wonderful life with a gorgeous and loving wife (Sofia Vergara), a son who idolizes him (Emjay Anthony), a still climbing reputation as one of the best chef’s in Los Angeles, a secure job at a renowned restaurant where he oversees a talented staff and loyal staff (led by John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale) who are more than devoted to him, they love him.
We’re meeting him, though, at a time when he’s become hard to love.
He’s querulous, defensive, short-fused, emotionally evasive and easily distracted---by his own thoughts. His mind seems always elsewhere. He’s a good boss to his staff but not much of a leader these days. He’s asking too much and too little and is incapable or, more likely, unwilling to explain things in a way that lets them know just what he wants, and this appears to be because he doesn’t know what he wants, out of them or for himself.
And he’s in the process of letting all the good things in his life slip away. He and his wife have divorced. When he can’t find an excuse not to be with his son, he hands him off to friends to watch while he busies himself with work, work, by the way, his son longs to take part in. This is a kid whose major demand is that his father teach him to be like him. And, at the moment, for the moment, he has a sexy and very low-maintenance girlfriend, Molly, the maitre d’ at the restaurant (Scarlett Johansson), but the basis of their affair is Molly’s understanding that he doesn’t really want a girlfriend and not taking it personally.
The only thing Carl seems committed to holding onto is his job at the restaurant but, we soon figure out, sticking with this job is a passive-aggressive way of letting his reputation slide.
It’s a good restaurant, and Riva, the owner (Dustin Hoffman), admires and respects Carl and his talents, but Riva knows his clientele and they’re not epicureans. They aren’t out for an adventure in fine dining. They want the gourmet equivalent of comfort food. Although he’s willing to let Carl experiment with a special now and then, what he wants---demands---is the same tried and true menu every night.
Carl needs something more. He just doesn’t seem to know that he needs it
Inez, his still loving and understanding ex-wife, knows. And she’s pretty sure of what it is he needs.
He needs to be his own boss and run his own restaurant, goals he’d been working toward and, truthfully, probably should have achieved well before now. In Inez’s non-judgmental opinion, he’s allowed himself to be to become too comfortable working at the restaurant. (Her opinion turns out to be shared by someone else, although he’s all too happy to wax judgmental when expressing it.) She’s decided his life needs shaking up and she’s hit on a plan.
A food truck.
Her idea is that a food truck will solve several of Carl’s problems at once. It will break him out of his stifling routine. It will allow him to be his own boss. And it will get him back to basics, making and serving food for people to enjoy for its own delicious sake and not out of an awed appreciation for the genius who made it.
Carl has consistently rejected the idea, for reasons of ego and professional pride---as you might expect of a master chef whose next step up ought to be a five-star restaurant of his own, Carl sees slinging sandwiches out of a truck parked at a beach as something of a step down---but there’s more to it.
He’s afraid to make any move, up or down, forward or backward, or sideways.
He’s as scared of success as he is of failure.
Carl’s reached a stage in his career where the next step requires a jump across a chasm and he’s frozen on the ledge. The leap required is a leap of faith in himself and he can’t manage it. Somewhere along the line he lost confidence in himself if not in his ability and now all his mental energy and focus are aimed at his keeping himself safely and securely teetering on the ledge. He doesn’t want to go backwards but he’s terrified of falling if he moves even an inch forward. And he’s convinced any demand on his attention will distract him and cause him to lose his balance.
Unfortunately, one demand is coming from his ten year old son Percy.
Carl wants to be a good and attentive father. He goes through the motions of being one. But everything he says to Percy, no matter how well meant and how tactfully or apologetically phrased, is a craven excuse for his neglect that he expects Percy to understand and accept without question, judgment, or complaint.
This can’t last.
Fortuitously, Carl bumbles his way into a Twitter war with a famous and famously caustic food critic (Oliver Platt) that leads to a face to face confrontation in the restaurant captured, of course, by fifty cell phones. A video goes viral---“I’m a cat playing the piano,” Carl laments of his sudden online celebrity. “I’m a meme!”---and Carl, humiliated, ashamed, and utterly baffled by what’s happening to him---he’s becoming famous but it doesn’t feel like a good thing---goes into hiding and then on the run. It’s a very low-velocity escape. He takes a trip to Miami with Inez and Percy to visit Inez’s father, a musician and singer at a nightclub in Little Havana (played by the salsero Jose C. “Perico” Hernandez. This is a good point to mention that Chef has a marvelous, eclectic soundtrack.) and at the club he’s served a Cuban sandwich that comes with a side of epiphany.
Two things dawn on him. These are really good sandwiches, the best he’s ever tasted, and he knows how to make them better.
Next thing we know, practically the next thing Carl knows himself, he’s cleaning, restoring, and outfitting a battered, grease-caked, rattletrap of a food truck, readying it for a drive back to California with stops along the way at Miami Beach, New Orleans, and Austin, Texas to sell sandwiches to pay for the trip.
He’s gotten the push he’s needed. But it’s not clear where it came from.
He might have stopped resisting Inez’s gentle prodding. He might have taken the less than subtle hint form the critic who, it turns out, is a disappointed early fan rooting for Carl to return to form. He might just be reflexively responding to circumstances that he might have unconsciously brought about himself. He might have finally made the decision he’d known he was going to have to make all along but had been putting off.
He might have activated his self-destruct button.
We can’t be sure what happened, because we’re never told.
One of the many beauties of Favreau’s screenplay is that his characters don’t waste time in conversation with each other on exposition. They are full of mixed and mixed-up emotions but don’t often pause to analyze or explain themselves. Carl, the most mixed up of the bunch, won’t sit still to listen to anyone who tries to analyze or explain him to himself.
They all have complicated backstories, too, or, actually, a backstory.
Chef is a portrait of the artist as a middle-aged cook but Carl, like a real human being, doesn’t exist as a self apart from the people he works with and loves, so a full portrait of the man is a portrait of the group. These people know each other well and they’ve been through a lot together. They know how they’ve got here together (here being not just inside this story but inside any particular scene) so they don’t need to stop and remind each other about what’s going on. This leaves them free to talk about what’s immediately in front of them, which makes for more dynamic, thing-specific, and sparer dialog than we hear in most “realistic” comedies and dramas, but leaves it up to us to work out what they’re thinking and feeling from allusions and references, as well as evasions, in what they’re saying and not saying. It’s like wandering in on conversations in real life where we can’t interrupt to ask, Will somebody please tell me what’s going on?
A lot of the fun is in the guessing game posed by the script but also in not guessing---in taking things at face value and just enjoying listening to these characters being themselves instead of explaining themselves.
Favreau takes a similarly oblique approach with his directing. Very often the point of an action, the beauty of it, the fun of it, is in watching the action for its own sake and not to see what it means or where it’s leading. This is especially true of scenes in which food is being prepared.
In most movies, scenes are shaped from the outside. That is, a scene is defined by what it takes to move the plot from one point to the next. When that point’s reached, the scene ends and a new scene begins. In Chef, Favreau shapes his scenes from the inside around what is being said and done. For the sake of what’s being said and done. A scene will begin when characters are still thinking and talking about something else before they haphazardly and randomly work their way to discussing what’s really the matter at hand and it will end unpredictably, without resolution, when they run out of words and are too baffled or angry or confused or chagrined to know what to say next or when they remember there’s something else they need to be doing and rush off to do it. Sometimes a new scene begins within a scene that hasn’t clearly ended when conversations get sidetracked by a new character bursting in with something else on his or her mind. Often it takes a moment to realize that’s happening, that the first scene’s over, the story’s been redirected, and a new scene’s begun without the camera moving or the time and place changing. More often, though, while the background changes, the actors change costumes, and it’s clear time (although not always how much time) has passed, the resulting effect is that Chef feels like one continuous scene. Kind of like life.
Carl is joined on his road-trip of self-rediscovery by his friend Martin, the saucier at Riva’s, who’s quit his job to follow Carl, and Percy who convinces his doubtful dad that working on a food truck is an ideal way for a ten year old to spend his summer vacation. And in watching these three cook their way across country that we see Chef’s major themes about work, art, and family and friendship put into direct action. Martin (Leguizamo) is a man of perfect faith, supremely confident that this enterprise is going to pay off in (enough) money and (a reasonable degree of) happiness because he has placed that faith in Carl’s talent. He’s not just a friend, he’s a true brother to Carl and uncle to Percy. Emjay Anthony as Percy is one of the least annoying child actors you’re ever likely to see, natural, intelligent without any off-putting precocity, good at conveying emotion without being cloying, precious, or bratty. This is a kid you wouldn’t mind having along for a three-thousand plus mile drive. He works hard, is quick on the uptake, and is eager to learn. As it happens, he also has a knack for using social media for marketing. Chef makes a good case that the best thing a father and son can do together to “bond” is share work and and practical knowledge. Forget spots, forget opening-up. Give the kid a tool and tool and show him how to use it.
As for the rest of the cast, Vergara is a curvaceous, broadly smiling island of placidity and heart. Oliver Platt deadpans his way marvelously through his scenes as the food critic, Ramsey Michel. His slow boil as he’s served one disappointing course after another is a masterpiece of not completely repressed anger. Robert Downey Jr is a one-scene wonder as Sofia’s other ex-husband, a charismatic but paranoid neurotic who manages to mix generosity with extreme selfishness. Bobby Cannavale, who should be in every movie, is happily in this one as Tony, Carl’s sous chef at Riva’s, an amiable alcoholic and screw-up outside the kitchen---he manages to arrive at work close to on time when he’s passed out in his car in the parking lot the night before---but who snaps to as soon as he has a knife or a sauce pan in hand. It’s implied that Tony’s life is saved when Carl’s seems to fall apart and he gets to take over as Riva’s chef de cuisine. Tony is an illustration of Chef’s theme that we’re all at our best when we’re working at something we love to do and are good at, but here again we’re not told. Or shown. Tony’s story continues off screen without updates, and Favreau leaves it up to us to figure it out.
Dustin Hoffman plays the type of character he was designed and built to play but which he’s played very few of since The Graduate, an ordinary human being with realistic problems, in this case a small business owner trying to keep afloat while balancing multiple and conflicting responsibilities. Riva, Carl’s soon-to-be former boss, admires and appreciates and likes Carl, but Carl isn’t his only employee. Riva feels a responsibility to keep his whole staff employed. He feels a responsibility to keep his loyal clientele happy. He feels a responsibility to himself to make a living. He feels a responsibility to Carl but Carl is making it difficult for him all around. We have a rooting interest in Riva’s standing up for Carl but, thanks to Hoffman’s earnest reasonableness and his convincing mix of affection, worry, disappointment, and repressed anger, when he lets him down we can’t help but think Riva might be doing the right thing.
Scarlett Johansson is another one getting to do what she hasn’t been doing much of lately, play an ordinary human being, although one who happens to be extraordinarily beautiful. Johansson is a member in high standing of the best crop of young leading actresses to come along in my lifetime, but next to the likes of Amy Adams, Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Lawrence, and Emily Blunt (with Emma Stone coming up behind them), she is the least natural and versatile, the most unsure of how to present herself to the camera and the one most lacking in confidence in her own voice. You can see the wheels turning as she calculates how to turn her head or phrase a line. And she never seems to know how to shape those incredibly luscious lips. But all that works for her in Chef, just as it does in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and for a similar reason.
In both she plays characters uncertain how to deal with men who, for different reasons in different ways, are difficult to deal with. Black Widow is trying to figure out how to get Cap to like and trust her. Molly knows Carl likes and trusts her but she’s aware that neither will count for much if she says the wrong thing or makes a wrong thing and sets him off on tempter tantrum or sinks him into a sulk, or chases him out the door. It makes sense that she would be cautiously thinking her way through every conversation.
Looking back to Lost in Translation, though, I’m wondering if this is deliberate career choice, that Johansson has been making a sub-specialty of playing characters who are baffled by their temperamental male leads.
Speaking of male leads.
I wouldn’t say Favreau gives the best performance by an actor directing himself since Orson Welles did it in Citizen Kane. But it’s the best performance by an actor directing himself I can think of at the moment since Orson Welles did it in Citizen Kane.
Directing yourself is a challenge it’s probably wisest not to take on. The divide in attention required causes problems in front of and behind the camera. Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, and Woody Allen have usually handled it by playing their standard movie personas. George Clooney likes to cast himself in secondary roles when he directs. All four lower the demands on themselves as actors. But Favreau gives a fully developed, totally honest character performance. He’s made it harder on himself by making Carl difficult to sympathize with, at least for the first third of the film. As I said, we’re meeting Carl at a time in his life when he’s hard to love. He’s irritable, contentious, mercurial, and often cruel to his family and friends. On top of all that he’s wrong. I don’t mean his opinions and judgments are incorrect or mistaken. I mean that he’s routinely in the wrong because he’s operating from premises that are wrong, emotionally, psychologically, professionally, and even morally. Favreau makes us see all that about Carl and excepts us to disapprove of him or at least be disappointed in him and yet still keeps us interested in him and rooting for him. He does this in a number of ways that should be taught in every acting class. But one of the best ways is his showing us that Carl is really, really, really good at what he does by having trained himself to be really, really, really good at doing what Carl is supposed to be doing himself.
I don’t know how good a cook Favreau learned to be, but if you’re ever in a bar bet over who can slice a carrot fastest and thinnest, put your money on Favreau.
Now. About the food.
I can’t even begin…
Chef really is about the joy of cooking. Not so much of eating. Cinematographer gives his camera’s loving attention to the preparation. The digging is left to the imagination.
Watching Chef will make you hungry, but it might also make you want to rush out as soon as it’s over to buy a cookbook and a set of high-quality chef’s knives.
There’s a scene in which Carl and Molly go back to his apartment after work and he sets about preparing them a late night snack. With most couples, this would be something to do after. For these two, we suspect, it’s their favorite form of foreplay. The camera cuts back and forth between shots of Carl cooking, ingredients going into and out of pans---it’s a pasta dish---and Molly, reclining on her side on the couch, her tight black sweater falling off one shoulder, her short, tight skirt riding up her thigh, a look of lubricious expectation on in her eyes, her lips parted in anticipatory delight, and when I saw Johansson like that I leaned over to Mrs M and whispered, “I want that.”
“I do too,” Mrs M replied.
We both meant the meal.
Here’s the recipe.
Fun article from Yahoo Movies about how Favreau trained for Chef by taking over Gwyneth Paltrow’s kitchen.
At GrubStreet, food critic Adam Platt interviews his brother Oliver Platt about the role of critics in art and to what degree Oliver modeled his character on Adam.
If you are inspired to buy a cookbook by Chef, the cookbook you’d want is one by Roy Choi, the chef who trained Favreau and provided many of the recipes for the dishes prepared in the film. Unfortunately, Choi hasn’t published a true cookbook that I have found. He has, however, written a memoir that includes many of his favorite recipes. It’s called L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food and it’s available at Amazon in hardcover and for kindle.
And Judy Walker of the Times-Picayune has posted the recipe for Carl’s Cubano sandwiches and included a link to a free e-cookbook with more recipes featured in the movie.
Chef, written and directed by Jon Favreau. Starring Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson, Oliver Platt, Bobby Cannavale, Emjay Anthony, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Downey Jr. Rated R. Now in theaters.