Let's be clear: Chef, the new film written, directed by, and starring Jon Favreau, does not shortchange food. If you go into it hungry, you may end up gnawing on your armrest (or the arm of whomever's unlucky enough to be sitting next to you) in frustration. In lusciously shot sequences, Favreau's character Carl Casper makes carne asada and grilled cheese, plates exquisite-looking prawns and whips up a gorgeous pasta, munches on fresh beignets and nibbles on Texas-style brisket, and prepares countless Cuban sandwiches in loving detail. Carl's a chef who flames out of the high-end L.A. restaurant scene and builds himself back up by running a food truck, and the movie is also careful to prove its foodie bona fides with scenes of him working in and out of the kitchen, butchering a pig, or buying plantains at the market.
But underneath all the deliciousness and the divorced-dad-bonds-with-adorable-son storyline is an unmistakable meditation on Favreau's own movie career, from his 1996 indie hit Swingers (which he wrote and starred in) to his more recent career as a director of giant (and not all universally loved) studio films, like the first and second Iron Man installments and Cowboys & Aliens.
Here are four lessons to take from Chef, which opens in limited release on Friday, about artistic integrity — whether it be in movies, in food, or otherwise.
Selling out's a personal problem.
Carl begins the film as the head chef of a high-end restaurant called Gauloises that offers popular but unimaginative luxury food — caviar eggs, French onion soup, chocolate lava cake. When he tries to put more daring and "artsy" fare on the menu, like sweetbreads, no one orders it. The place is a neat stand-in for the studio system in which Favreau's been working, where Carl might be the talent running the show, but he's not the one footing the bill. That responsibility falls to Riva (Dustin Hoffman), the owner of Gauloises whose focus is on getting asses in seats and who pushes Carl to serve the "greatest hits" on the night a famous food blogger is coming in to review the place.
Chef is actually refreshingly even-handed about the balance between commercial appeal and artistic fulfillment, which is only fair coming from someone who's responsible for one of the best and one of the worst installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It'd be hypocritical for Favreau to completely damn the structure he worked his way into and has experienced so much success with, and so Riva's not really a villain, just the intractable voice of the business side of things ("Be an artist on your own time!").
Carl's frustrations are the result of his own situation, not the system — his boss wants him to stick with what's working and to give the people what they expect (explosions, special effects, ahi tuna). His desire to prove he can be edgy and innovative is ultimately his own problem.
Criticism smarts, especially when it's the truth.
Critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) sparks Carl's meltdown when the famous food blogger brutalizes Gauloises in his review, leading social media newbie Carl to call him out on Twitter. Critics are rarely portrayed in a flattering light in movies, but aside from being snarky and pompous (and slipping in a line about his target's "dramatic weight gain"), Ramsey's not that bad. His review is harsh, but what really hurts Carl is that he knows he's not doing his best work, and that he's never going to be able to do it in the context of the place he's working. He gets himself in a lather, cooking an ambitious meal he won't get to serve at home, then heads off to confront Ramsey in a sequence that makes him YouTube infamous.
Favreau's clearly been nursing some wounds from the reviews of Cowboys & Aliens, which were far from the overwhelming praise Swingers received 15 years earlier. "A lot of these guys, they got it in for me," Carl tells his son Percy (Emjay Anthony), blaming this on the good notices when he was starting out. But Chef doesn't allow Carl the comfort of pinning Ramsey's review on revenge, and while he eventually gets to have his say about how hurtful the piece was, the film suggests that critics and chefs might actually be in agreement about what's good.
Authenticity means getting back to your roots (and borrowing other people's).
Carl's road to redemption involves a food truck and Cuban sandwiches — "real" food, as he puts it, that he learned to make in Miami, where he got his start. He embarks on a road trip from Miami back to L.A. with Percy and his trusty second-in-command Martin (John Leguizamo), making stops along the way at cultural and foodie meccas like New Orleans and Austin, where institutions Cafe Du Monde and Franklin Barbecue lend their legitimacy to the fictional character. The politics of this appropriation are a little complicated, if totally in line with how a trendy food truck would work. But it's getting back to the basics that reminds Carl of his love of real, down-and-dirty cooking.
Favreau's own food-truck equivalent is Chef, which finds him returning to the smaller, character-driven kind of film he began in. He's hardly starting from scratch — no average indie director would be able to load his or her cast with the likes of Bobby Cannavale, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, and Sofía Vergara in addition to Hoffman, Leguizamo, and Platt. But then again, neither is Carl, who's a big name and who had plenty of help getting his life back on track. There's never any doubt Carl is talented — the question is whether he'll be able to put that talent to use without getting in his own way.
When you're the director, you get to cast your own love interests.
Chef may include a few winking jabs at its protagonist's girth, but it's also true that Favreau's not really the type to be cast as even a quirky romantic lead anymore. One of the obvious indulgences in this affable, good-natured movie is that Favreau casts not just Vergara as his benevolent ex, but Johansson as the hostess with whom he fools around. Both characters are unfailingly loving and supportive, and Johansson even has a scene in which she lounges in bed watching Carl cook with a mixture of admiration and lasciviousness. When you're the one steering the ship...er, driving the food truck, who's going to stop you?
No one, which is the point. Favreau went smaller scale in order to make the movie he wanted to make, without studio oversight, and the result is warm and goes down easy, and if it's short on conflict, it's as comforting as the grilled cheese Carl cooks up for Percy. It's not the compulsively quotable classic Swingers was, but Favreau's not that struggling actor anymore, and as a reminder he can write, act, and direct something that's not an oversize blockbuster, Chef works perfectly well.