Movie Review: Chef Is Sweet but Not Super-Meaty

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Throughout the screening, my friend, a chef, kept elbowing me in the ribs. It happened any time a chef or a cook in the film presented food to someone who proceeded to tell said chef or cook how wonderful the food was. Then, the chef would seem surprised and self-deprecating.

"Is it really good?" he'd say. "You promise? You really like it?"

This dialogue from the insecure chef was a little too much for her to handle. It was alarming in its accuracy, as was most of the dialogue in the film. Sure, the fact that the chefs had no burn scars and issues such as permitting food trucks bothered them not a whit took away from the realism a bit, but that dialogue was spot-on.

"Every line cook puts cornstarch on his balls at some point," my friend whispered during one scene. "Ask them. They'll tell you."

The film is the latest from writer/director/actor Jon Favreau known as an actor for Swingers and for a recurring role as Monica Gellar's boyfriend on the TV show Friends, as well as small roles in a number of other films. He's better known now as the director of Elf and Iron Man and as the writer of Swingers, Couples Retreat and now Chef. Though Swingers is somewhat of a cult classic, Chef is Favreau's best work yet, and in it he takes on the role of writer, director and star.

Favreau plays Carl Casper, a once-great chef who's now working in a popular restaurant but is forced to give into the demands of the restaurant's old-fashioned owner, Riva, played by Dustin Hoffman. When the restaurant gets wind that an influential critic, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), will be dining with them that evening, Casper plans a menu that's sure to wow. Convinced that the tried and true dishes are a better bet, Riva tells Casper that he'll make his classic dishes or he'll find a new job. Casper grudgingly agrees and, as expected, the critic is underwhelmed. In the review, he goes so far as to write, "His dramatic weight gain can only be explained by the fact that he must be eating all the food sent back to the kitchen." Admittedly, as a critic, I'm a little jealous of such wit.

Casper is crestfallen, though, and promptly engages in a Twitter war with the villainous critic, challenging him--in less than kind words--to return to the restaurant for an incredible meal. Once again, Riva intervenes, so Casper quits. Not willing to go down without a fight with someone (anyone), he confronts the critic at the restaurants and becomes an unwitting YouTube sensation. He finds himself divorced, jobless, the laughingstock of the Internet and creatively lost as a chef.

At the goading of his ex-wife (Sophia Vergara) and son (a brilliant breakthrough performance by Emjay Anthony), Casper travels to Miami, where he's so inspired by a simple Cuban sandwich that he decides to finally "cook for himself" once again by opening a food truck.

Here's where it gets less realistic. I know of no food truck currently on the road in Houston that could successfully make the drive from Miami to Los Angeles. They just aren't built well enough. And the one that Casper acquires is a real clunker. Somehow, he's able to find the manpower and the moola to completely refurbish it in a matter of days, producing once of the cleanest and nicest food trucks I've ever seen. Then, of course, he has no trouble with permits as he drives across the country, and amazingly little prep work to create the Cuban sandwiches that are making people line up around the block for a taste of what Casper has created.

The redemption story is just a tad too neat and tidy for me, though it's certainly heartwarming. Perhaps the best moments of the film come from the relationship between Casper and his 10-year-old son, desperate to spend time with his father. The food imagery is pretty awesome, too, as is the rather course but accurate kitchen dialogue.

This is Hollywood, though. It's not real life. And in Hollywood, food truck magic can happen overnight and Aaron Franklin (in a cameo appearance) will still have barbecue left late in the afternoon. For chefs, many of whom were in the audience when I saw the film, the story is alternately too close to home and too farfetched to fully enjoy. But for the rest of us, watching the move from fancy kitchen to funky food truck is a pretty fun ride.

Chef opens in Houston theaters today.

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