Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Elwood's Essentials #11 - Chef

Title: Chef
Director: Jon Favreau
Released: 2014
Starring: Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, Scarlett Johansson, Oliver Platt, Bobby Cannavale, Dustin Hoffman, Emjay Anthony, Robert Downey Jr.

Plot: Carl (Favreau), a head chef bored with churning out the same old classic dishes and wanting to innovate his cooking soon finds himself fired after running afoul of the restaurant owner Riva (Hoffman). Now heading back to Miami he hits upon the idea of running a food truck, before heading off on a cross country road trip with his son Percy (Anthony) and his best friend Martin (Leguizamo) in tow.


Review: Here we have one of those rare films which like “The Darjeerling Limited” I want to watch again as soon as it ended, but also one which I instantly knew deserved a place on my essentials list.

Perhaps it was due to the source material, having grown up in a family were for the guys knowing how to cook was an essential life skill to be mastered, with my father having originally trained to be a chef only to then decide that he didn’t want to be one once he’d completed his training much to the dismay of my grandfather, a legendry cook in my family in his own right. Needless to say having grown up learning to cook with my father, it was inevitable that one of the main storylines here which see’s Carl bonding with his son over cooking which resonate with me.

A film crafted out Favreau’s desire to work on a smaller scale project after having spent the last few years working on big budget features, which lets not forget saw him as the first director to kick off the Marvel cinematic universe by directing the first two “Iron Man” films, it is nice to see Favreau returning to his independent roots mirroring in many ways his character’s journey we follow in the film.

Seemingly drawing inspiration from chef / author Antony Bourdain, Carl is head chief who loves his industry, a passion which makes him popular with his fellow chef’s, though at the same time has been at the cost of his marriage and connection with his son who he currently has an estranged relationship with.  Interestingly it’s not his ego which initially causes his downfall as you would expect, as he clashes with his boss Riva (here played by Hoffman in a rare villainous turn) over the type of dishes to serve when Carl calls out food critic Ramsey Michel (Platt) whose dismay at the dishes being served leads Carl to a very public meltdown in one of the few moments were he loses his cool and in this case his career.

It’s this fall from glory and his journey back to the top, were the real heart of the film lies as Carl returns to his hometown and buys himself a banged up food truck, which he fixes up with his son and partner in crime Martin, here played by Leguizamo with his usual vibrant energy. At the same time this new beginning marks not only a new start for Carl’s career, but also a chance to reboot his relationship with his son as they start to bond over cooking, with such great scenes as Carl buying his son his first cook’s knife and explaining the responsibility that comes with it, as well as disciplining him over wanting to serve a burned sandwich highlighting a standard he refuses he maintains regardless of the level he’s working at. At the same time Percy furthers their renewed connection by handling the social media promotion for the truck, as he attempts to educate Carl how to use Twitter which bizarrely is so heavily featured throughout I had to wonder if they were sponsoring the film.

Unsurprisingly for a film about cooking, there is some serious food-porn action happening throughout the film as we get to see various dishes being created from high end culinary dishes through to the equally tasty Cuban sandwiches which form the foundation of his return to the top. The film also takes in real life restaurants such as “Café du Monde” in New Orleans French quarter and “Franklin Barbecue” in Austin, Texas which only add to the experience with Favreau citing “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” amongst the films which inspired him and when it comes to how food is presented and shot here, these inspirations are clear. At the same time Favreau embarked on a crash course in French culinary schooling aswell as training with food truck chef Roy Choi who also served as a consultant on the film and here Favreau's schooling pays off as he looks perfectly comfortable in the kitchen while it adds a level of realism to proceedings not usually seen in these kinds of films.

Favreau here has assembled a great cast, while at the same time using his little black book of celebrity contacts, as we get cameo’s not only by the aforementioned Hoffman, but also by “Iron Man” alumni Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr. who put in good performances for the brief  but memorable appearances that they make here, much like the underrated Oliver Platt who as food critic Ramsey Michel and whose brother is actually a food critic, manages to have the audience view his character one way when we first meet him, while managing to pull a reversal by the time we meet him again at the end. Elsewhere Sofia Vergara appearing as Carl’s ex-wife who he maintains a friendly relationship with, brings her usual Latin charms while essentially playing the same role she always does, which isn’t a bad thing, especially when she is always so fun when she is on the screen.

The film could be criticised for its lack of high drama, as Favreau concentrates on the fun of the journey and Percy discovering the joy of cooking, but when the journey is packed with so many colourful characters and delicious sights and latin fused soundtrack there is little longing for anything which might distract from these things.  If anything this is the sort of film which makes you long for the days of scratch and sniff card or a 4D viewing especially when the film is shot in such an immersive style. Still for now I can only hope that Favreau continues this interest in making low budget, especially if this is any indication of the sort of films he would be making as I’d certainly love to see him doing more films like this than another big budget feature, especially if they are this tasty.

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