If you’re looking for a heartwarming, fresh and funny little film to give you a boost over the holidays, I highly recommend actor and director Jon Favreau’s delicious comedy Chef, which is now on DVD. This charming road picture features talented chef Carl Casper (Favreau), a man who has given up expressing his creativity in the kitchen in order to cook for an unimaginative restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman) with diligence but without inspiration. After receiving a bad restaurant review, Carl vows to show what culinary magic he can work in order to salvage his reputation, but things don’t work out as planned. The fiasco forces Carl to start his life over, returning to his roots and focusing on creating simple but perfect food for the masses. This leads him to a closer, more reciprocal relationship with the young son he drifted away from when he let go of his passions and his greatest gifts.
The film has a leisurely pace and many thoroughly enjoyable scenes of preparing and devouring great meals. We go for a long, funny, often moving ride in an old food truck along with Carl, his son (played with great skill and warmth by young actor Emjay Anthony), and his loyal sous chef (played with gusto by John Leguizamo). Along the way we see the U.S. with new eyes and recognize that meals, like relationships, don’t have to be expensive and fancy to be exceptional and memorable.
The movie is essentially a love letter to food, family and friends, and Favreau, who is himself a skilled chef and gourmand, takes the time to show delicious-looking food prepared lovingly and authentically as part of the film’s exploration of preparing and sharing meals as a metaphor for sharing art, love and meaning. It’s well crafted, beautifully paced and so authentic in tone that each time I’ve seen it I’ve come away feeling like I just hung out with generous old friends who invited me to share something rare and meaningful with them.
Jon Favreau directed such crowd-pleasers as Elf and the first two Iron Man pictures, but he’s also a talented actor who got his first big break in Doug Liman’s very funny 1996 indie comedy Swingers. Favreau wrote the script for Chef in just two weeks and called in a few superstars (Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson) to fill small roles, but the three key actors (Favreau, Anthony and Leguizamo) have such chemistry and take such genuine delight in each other that you hardly know or care about the big-ticket actors.
Often feel-good comedies have a manufactured, by-the-numbers feel to them. I don’t like being manipulated by a director who wants to spoon-feed me my emotions; I want a film to earn my respect and authentic responses. Chef made me feel as if I’d been drawn into something special and intimate. I hope you’ll find it as sweet and satisfying as I did.