It’s one of those “small” films with stock characters, predictable plot points, and middle-aged stars in cameo roles, but it’s also a lot of fun. Jon Favreau (known to me as the director of Iron Man and Iron Man 2) wrote the script and takes the leading role, of a good-natured but hot-headed L.A. chef struggling with the tedium of producing the same restaurant menu night after night.
When word gets around that the city’s leading food critic (Oliver Platt) will be stopping by for dinner—a critic who was instrumental in launching the chef’s career a decade earlier—Favreau buys the ingredients for an innovative menu, but the restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman) puts the kibosh on his plans. “We’ve cooked the same menu for ten years and our patrons love it, and we will continue to cook it,” Hoffman asserts, in that tight-cheeked, nasal tone at which he is adept, while slamming a clipboard against the industrial kitchen counter.
Meanwhile, Favreau, who’s divorced, is also struggling to be a good dad to his quiet son, Percy, in the midst of the demands and distractions of the restaurant business. The fable-like quality of the tale is made evident by the fact that Favreau’s ex is played by Columbian supermodel Sophia Vergara, and his head waitress by Scarlett Johansson. It’s bolstered further by the fact that Vergara lives in a palatial estate, courtesy of the divorce settlement with her first husband (Robert Downey, Jr.).
The plot’s catalyst is Twitter. Favreau doesn’t know what it is. Percy shows him how it works, and Favreau immediately (though inadvertently) gets into a flame war with the food critic (who, I hardly need to mention, was not impressed with his recent meal).
In the early stretches of the film, Vergara urges her ex-husband (with whom she’s on extremely cordial terms) to quit his job and return to his roots as a food truck impresario. So I won’t be giving away much if I reveal that the second half of the film takes a turn in this direction.
There are plenty of luscious cooking scenes at the L.A. restaurant early on, and also at Favreau's bachelor apartment. There are more later, as Favreau and his old sidekick Martin ( John Leguizamo) put some spit and polish on a dilapidated food truck and drive it from Miami back to L.A., winning new fans all along the way with the help of their Twitter-savvy publicist, son Percy.
Chef is all in good fun, buoyed by a cheery energy and a palpable love of food. But if you do happen to see it, be forewarned: you’ll leave the theater wishing there was someplace nearby to pick up a good Cubano. (Manny’s Tortas at Mid-Town Market?)
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Yes, Chef is a summer romp of a film, but it also raises an interesting question about restaurants: Is Hoffman right to demand a crowd-pleasing menu at the expense of Favreau’s “creativity” as a chef and his desire to shine in the industry? I would say yes. There is something deceptive, if not unethical, about preparing a special meal for a critic, who will then write about it favorably to countless readers, unless the restaurant plans to offer that same menu regularly. On the other hand, if a restaurant changes its menu seasonally, the chef and his (or her) staff would be less likely to get bored, and the owner would be comfortable with occasional changes to the menu.
But then there wouldn’t be much of a film.