America is having a love affair with certain foods: fussed-over, fused, authentic, tweeted and served from a truck. It was inevitable that somebody would seek to capture this giddiness in a heartfelt, small-scale movie. But I wouldn't have guessed the cinematic cook would be Jon Favreau, last seen serving giant sacks of corporate filler in Iron Man and Cowboys vs. Aliens.
Favreau writes, directs and stars in Chef, a slight but companionable mash-up of food porn, family comedy and road trip. Favreau portrays Carl Casper, the chef at a fancy Los Angeles restaurant who, while fighting against culinary doldrums, has a meltdown with a widely read food blogger (Oliver Platt). The result: He's out of a job, a viral laughingstock and a continuing disappointment to his son, Percy (Emjay Anthony).
After a shaggy-dog set-up, Casper and his sous chef Martin (John Leguizamo) outfit a food truck and hit the road, serving Cuban grub across the country. Along for the journey is Percy, who re-connects with his dad, learns to grill and runs the truck's social-media outreach.
Chef, which bounces along on a kicky soundtrack, benefits from a simple premise, delivered simply, with no tiresome sitcom-like complications. It has just a dollop of family melodrama, and only a squiggle of "follow your heart." The little bite it has is reserved for its love-hate relationship with Twitter and the like: On one hand, Chef is a revenge pic directed at food bloggers and critics who can wield so much power online, but it's also a rom-com about Casper's relationship with social media (starts badly, ends fruitfully).
On a less modern note, the only two women in this film — Casper's ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) and a restaurant hostess (Scarlett Johansson) — couldn't be more regressively written: They wear only skin-tight clothing, and express only thoughts about Casper. Hey Jon, women are in the food biz, too!
Chef is a bit of a fairy tale, and magic wands are waved throughout: Casper is simply given a food truck by his ex-wife's ex-husband; the truck magically parks in all the best spots, with no pesky permits; and an on-board cornucopia re-supplies vittles. Even the ending is like chef Casper's maligned lava cake — too sweet, too gooey, too expected — though perhaps that's a meta-commentary on our affection for traditional endings and desserts.
Finally: DO NOT GO TO THIS FILM ON AN EMPTY STOMACH, especially if you like pork. In terms of food porn, this may be one of the more painful films I've sat through. I don't need to see so many lovingly prepared Cubanos and smoked briskets — unless they're waiting for me in the lobby.