Year Released: 2014
Directed by: jon Favreau
Starring: Jon Favreau, Emjay Enthony, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson
(R, 115 min.)
“Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.” –Harriet Van Horne
It teases, taunts, and tantalizes us with a fabulous array of food porn, but Chef is so much more. Like its signature Cubano sandwich, each ingredient is fresh and piquant, and the same authenticity and passion permeate every aspect of this most delightful film.
As Evan Kleiman, chef, former restaurateur, and host of KCRW’s “Good Food” series, sums it up,
The first American chef movie that brings it all together: the passion, the rhythm, the skills, the kitchen, the strained family life and a working plot.
The actors seem more like old friends and family, not cast members. And the scenes in the crowded kitchen are as fast-paced and action-packed as the latest thriller, but much more genuine without the computer generated imagery that has infected that genre. The only blasts are verbal; improvised explosive devices only detonate on Youtube and Twitter, but they are lethal nonetheless.
Jon Favreau, who also wrote, directed, and produced the film, stars as Carl Casper, a once up and coming chef who has become frustrated in the posh and pricy LA restaurant where he works. Dustin Hoffman plays the controlling owner who is more concerned with pleasing his steady customers than his temperamental chef.
“Be an artist on your own time,” Riva (Dustin Hoffman) scolds. Stick to “your greatest hits” menu.
So when Riva nixes the sensational fare Chef Casper has planned for the esteemed food critic visiting the restaurant, the chef dutifully makes the same tried and true dishes that bring in the customers to his boss’s restaurant. Not surprisingly, they earn him only scorn from critic Ramsey Michael (Oliver Platt), whose pen drips acid rather than ink. The scathing critique is close and personal, too:
His dramatic weight gain can only be explained by the fact that he must be eating all the food they sent back to the kitchen.
Part of the contemporary energy of the film comes from the wave of social media that crashes ashore on Casper, whose dedication to his cuisine has isolated him from that phenomenon as well as other little things like his marriage and fatherhood. Luddite Casper thinks his crude, impassioned retort to the critic is for his eyes only. Only the next day does his tech savvy son Percy tell him that on Twitter all replies are public. His public rant in the restaurant has also ignited on YouTube.
Some critics have labeled Chef predictable, just like love and death, which never stopped Shakespeare or Verdi from revisiting those old themes. But on several levels the film gives us little surprises. Like a new herb in and old sauce – Mexican Mint Marigold in the butter sauce for Salmon, for instance – they are subtle yet significant.
The divorced Casper is very close to the restaurant hostess Molly (Scarlett Johannson in a comely black coiffeur). They talk intimately, their faces almost touching; then he suggests something that raises her eyebrows and puts a temptress smile on those memorable lips. The next scene she curls up on his sofa seductively. The climax of their passion brings forth soft sounds of pleasure, but their cause is not what we might expect. It is the luscious nested pasta, erect and creamy on her plate as the camera closes in.
Chef really comes of age when it jets off to Miami and Little Havana, where Inez (Sofia Vergara), Carl's ex-wife, grew up and also where Carl first established his reputation as a chef. We have several delicious scenes here, one of the best with Inez’s first husband played to persnickety perfection as only Robert Downey Jr. could. Among sly allusions to recent possible past liaisons with Inez, he bestows a food truck on the jobless Carl, but the dilapidated hunk of tin that limps into the parking lot is more an appraisal of Carl’s low worth than a helping hand up.
Another great scene has Carl, Inez, and Percy at a night club where the band sways in a sensual rhythm so seductive that even shy Percy begins to undulate his shoulders, not to mention his mother’s more ebullient response, one that is echoed by Carl, who even surprises himself. Oh, and the leader of the band is not Ricky Ricardo, but Inez’s own father.
The repair and cleanup of the old truck echo Carl’s transformation itself. Carl’s coworker Martin (John Leguizamo) quits his LA job and flies to Miami to join them. Together Carl and Percy, with Martin’s help, scrape down the food truck’s filthy kitchen, throw out the junk and reclaim whatever they can of value, even if it is filled with rotted food.
The humble food truck now flaunts a new paint job and gleaming stainless steel, but it is still crowded and hot as the devil. But that only helps set the rhythm that Carl, Martin, and Percy establish as they turn out their delicious pork, ham, and cheese Cubano sandwiches. Percy masters the double-sided food press, the “George Foreman grill” as he calls it, and he learns a few important lessons when he burns a bun and scalds his finger.
It is the rhythm of a father teaching his son the trade he loves, a tempo that has united fathers and sons throughout time until that little hiccup called the Industrial Revolution took fathers away from home and, to some extent, fatherhood as well.
In the steaming kitchen, where tired hands butter the bread and count the cash without skipping a beat, that old rhythm re-establishes itself. The road trip back to California delivers not just a revamped truck, but a revamped father and son as well.
We watch Chef Casper create food that is delicious and a work of art as well. In fact, the chef as artist, with the same perfectionist temperament, is a theme echoed in other food films such as Big Night, Mostly Martha, and Tortilla Soup. The interesting twist in this film is that despite a flirtation with haute cuisine, it is a return to his simple roots, the Cubano sandwiches of Little Havana, that ground Carl Casper and bring him back from the brink.
The planned excesses on his weekly visits to his son–trips to theme parks and roller coaster rides–are replaced by “just hanging out” as Percy aptly describes it. The small everyday moments that make life real, and the small everyday foods that anchor us to our past.
I present the Cubano Pressed Sandwich, a delight of pork, ham, and cheese, here replaced with leftover ham and turkey by a savvy, enterprising post Thanksgiving cook.
The same is true for Carl in the film. He passes through Texas and stops at Franklin’s Barbecue, an Austin sensation that got its start in 2009 in an Eastside food truck. Carl samples the slow cooked brisket, tended by men all night long to coax out that unique tenderness, and he is transfixed.
So the Austin Midnight Sandwich is born, La Media Noche, with brisket replacing the ham and pork. Carl and Percy have their midnight sandwiches on top of the food truck, parked just down the road from Different Drummer’s own Austin abode. They listen to the soft sway of the live band at Guerro’s, certainly one of my favorite haunts on South Congress Avenue, or SoCo, as we call it here, as they sit on top of “El Jefe,” their food truck. The neon sign from Home Slice Pizza beats a rhythm from across the street and the warm night air hugs them close.
Life doesn’t get much better than that.
The Cubano Pressed Sandwich
A tradtoitional Cuban sandwich packs roast pork and thinly liced ham. We've switched it up a bit, subbing in leftover ham and turkey. For best results, use two cast-iron skilliet or a sandwich press.
Yield: Makes 2 sandwiches
Cook time:10 Minutes
Prep time:10 Minutes
2 soft Portuguese rolls or soft French sandwich rolls, sliced lengthwise
Prepared mustard, to taste
1 large dill pickle, thinly sliced lengthwise
4 ounces roast turkey, sliced
4 ounces ham, thinly sliced
3 ounces sliced Swiss or provolone cheese
1. Spread each roll with mustard. Arrange half of pickle, turkey, ham, and cheese slices on each roll; press together gently. Spread outsides of rolls with butter.
2. Place sandwiches in cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Put second skillet directly on sandwiches. Press down, and grill 5 to 10 minutes on each side or until cheese is melted and sandwich is flattened and browned.