Listen to the review by David H. Anthony above, or read it below.
The work of Jon Favreau has already made an impact on American popular film. He has been executive producer for the Iron Man franchise as well as for The Avengers and the quirky Cowboys and Aliens. Chef, his latest endeavor, is distinct from its predecessors; while categorized as a comedy it nonetheless addresses several very serious matters, the most central of which revolve around parenting, more specifically fathering.
Favreau’s character, Carl Casper, the film’s protagonist, is an executive chef who has hit a rough patch in his professional career and personal life. A workaholic, he lives for the reputation he has earned in the kitchen of a popular restaurant. Yet in the past he was renowned for his innovations in cookery. Along the way he has shed a spouse, Inez (Sofia Vergara), and is now in danger of losing their vulnerable child, Percy (Emjay Anthony).
We quickly learn that for many a chef’s life, work is an all or nothing proposition. Like many high pressure public occupational paths it easily extends far beyond work hours. In fact, one is hard pressed to determine when laboring hours end. This can do incalculable damage to family life, as evinced in Carl’s fractured former domestic situation. Currently divorced, he shares custody of Percy with an ex-wife who seems impossibly busy as well.
This is the core of the drama around which Chef revolves. The MacGuffin or plot device is a powerful and fearsome food critic, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), who formerly regaled Carl for his culinary prowess but has become the bane of his existence. Ultimately this creates the rationale for Carl’s ostensible fall from grace and subsequent self-reinvention in the food truck world. This lapse in professional progress facilitates an even greater redemption as Carl embarks upon an epic road odyssey with a dedicated sous chef Martin (John Leguizamo) and, most crucially, his virtually estranged, deeply needy son, Percy.
Also in the cast are Dustin Hoffman as Carl’s erstwhile boss and Robert Downey, Jr., as a dubious benefactor. We are carried along by a soundtrack to die for, featuring nothing less than a capsule summary of the evolution of the Afro-Latin genre known as salsa. In its own way Chef is a novel kind of road picture, reaching destinations that resonate for their cultural richness, like Austin, New Orleans and Miami, before reentering California.
Of course the other outstanding element of the story is the food itself, and the magisterial manner of its presentation. It almost seems one of the characters. Through this trip Carl and Percy are able to discover each other on their own terms, with magical results. Chef strives mightily to tie up all its loose ends happily, in some ways improbably, but its effect is on the whole uplifting. Chef captures many poignant aspects of the dilemma of child rearing while trying to make a mark on the world, reminding us what matters most.