RB score: 9/10 “Chef” is a movie that captivates the audience so easily with sight and sound, that you forget you can’t actually taste, touch or smell the food that the Chef is cooking. He had me at the beginning when he first got out of his car in the crisp white chef uniform for work. And he’ll have you too for the sounds of chopping cilantro and for the storyline that unfolds and which takes us on location in Miami along with the characters in the story.
Played by Jon Favreu, who also produced, directed and wrote the movie, Chef Carl is a master at his craft but experiences more challenges with his personal life. Once a week he picks up his 10 year old son from his ex wife Inez, played with her usual charismatic flair by Sofia Vergara. Vergara is always fun onscreen as she has that rare comic ability that transcends timing; she doesn’t have to act funny to convey humour. She just thinks funny and sends it forth at will with effortless charm. As exes, Carl and Inez are friends but Carl is so preoccupied with his job that the time with his son has been compromised as a result, and we soon get to know the reason why he doesn’t have more work/life balance: Dustin Hoffman as Ravi.
Not for the first time it occurs to me that Hollywood screenwriters better understand how to manage people than corporate America does. Earlier that day, Carl, upon spotting one of his assistants, Tony (played by Bobby Cannavale) sleeping in his car in the parking lot, instead of disciplining him or criticizing, merely asks “Are you OK? Are you sober?” therefore underscoring a basic tenet of management: There’s never any such thing as the perfect workforce. People have warts. Good leaders figure out how to get the best out of people. Tony is awake in an instant, and with affable charm, tells his leader “I’m cool” and heads in to work. Watching Carl’s kitchen humming with activity, the audience witnesses his leadership ability at the forefront with culinary arts being secondary. The atmosphere in the kitchen is electric; everyone knows they will be tested and have to put on a show that night.
Then Ravi stops by to throw a damper on the high morale. Hoffman’s acting chops allow him to adapt to the nuances of any role and here he portrays a boss who freely exercises the power that comes with owning everything. Ravi strides into the workspace and undermines Carl in front of his staff. Everyone is excused and the Chef correctly points out that it’s his staff and that his cooking will be on trial with the impending arrival of the food critic. Everything has been planned for the big night with meticulous care. Ravi reminds the chef that he is the owner who pays the bills and that he will call the shots. Unconvinced that a lone critic should have more significance than loyal customers, Ravi gives Carl a directive to play it safe. Stick to the tried and true. Not even one new offering will be on the menu that night. “Play your hits!” In the role of chef, Carl treats us to vivid visuals that demonstrate his commitment to every aspect of his art, represented in all of the colors of the palette, beautiful ingredients gathered at the farmers’ market and tested in late night sessions with Molly, the hostess (played by Scarlett Johansson) that are all about getting creative with the ingredients. (This is all about the joy of cooking, not… anything else).
On the big night, the food critic Ransey (Oliver Platt) who had been looking forward to exactly this type of culinary adventure, is sorely disappointed at being served the same dishes as the previous year, and writes a scathing review, lambasting Carl for not showcasing his signature creativity. Later, Carl’s right hand man Martin (the excellent John Leguizamo) and Tony see Carl in the back room and independently advise the chef not to worry about Twitter comments. Carl doesn’t have any idea what they’re talking about, and both Martin and Tony change the subject hastily.
Since his loyal employees won’t educate him about social media, the chef enlists the aid of his son, who is not only happy to be able to help his dad with something… he makes some profound little-kid statements that make his dad realize that it’s not all about being the once a week “fun dad” that he has been, and that relationships are built on real world happenings. However, the professional road gets rockier. Carl fails to grasp fully how Twitter works and in response to Ramsey’s tweets, sends him a reply that is retweeted and viral by next morning.
The resultant showdown between Carl, Ramsey and Ravi ends up with Carl quitting for good. It’s the scenario that many dream of, walking out on the unreasonable and irrational authority figure that trashes your dreams and any chance of success. For his part, Ravi fails to understand what Ramsey was looking for from the chef, and tries to curry favor by bringing out a bottle of expensive wine. But Ramsey notices that Carl isn’t there and Ravi never even gets close to understanding that he can’t fix the situation with money. Ravi puts Tony on the spot and tells him to take over the kitchen. The others set their sadness and outrage aside as they continue to work, heads down. That their leader was clueless about social media did not diminish their respect for him because when people care about a leader these things don’t matter.
Now unemployed, Carl is unexpectedly given a new lease on life by Inez and her first husband, Marvin, played to eccentric perfection by former Brat Pack actor Robert Downey, Jr. Inez has business in Miami and would like Carl to go with her and their son, so she can see her musician Dad and Carl can spend time with his son. She is also anxious for Carl to go see Marvin. Downey’s Marvin is a combination of generous and jerk, and the generous part of him gives Carl a broken down fixer-upper food truck. Carl is now his own boss, he’s got his son helping him work on the food truck and upon hearing the news, Carl’s former employee Martin appears in Miami to become a partner. When Carl tells Martin, “You’re hired. It pays nothing!” their senseof possibility is infectious.
Here the movie changes course from defeat to the promise of what can be accomplished. As Carl, his son and his new partner drive the truck from Miami to Los Angeles, we get to go along for yet another movie road trip that breaks some new ground, even though some unavoidable movie clichés are present. The 2 adults drive in shifts, there are no fancy hotel stays and the guys are starting to make money at every stop as the crowds line up at the mere sight of the truck. Good food sustains us and gives life, but good movies give life to all of our senses. Rather than continue and give spoilers, I’d like to encourage any of the handful of people reading to get this movie and prepare for a thoroughly enjoyable time. Realism was never compromised with the food preparation as Favreau enlisted the help of real life food truck guru Roy Choi.
I now know what I’m going to do with the rest of my life!