Chef: can a film live by bread alone?

Jon Favreau’s Chef relies on its menu.  With its mix of stereotypes from the restaurant business and the saccharine sweet sentimentality of its family-reunited plot, there’s not much reason to watch Chef from a dramatic perspective.  But I’m pretty sure that’s not why anyone is going to see this film.  It’s all about the food porn – but is that enough?

Try watching that trailer and tell me you’re not a little turned on.  And I’m not talking about Sofia Vergara.  The draw here is the sizzling pork belly, the wildly squirting jus, the heat of a perfect griddle pan close up.  The only thing we love more than eating good food is imagining the great food that we want to eat.  That’s what Chef promises, and it’s what it delivers.

I’m sure we’ve all experienced the power of a grilled cheese sandwich to mend any relationship.

The obvious question, though, is should you bother watching an entire film just for the food?  Why not read a good cookbook or watch Nigella Lawson on TV?  Why not indeed, for Chef has a whole bunch of reasons for you not to go see it.

I have four main problems with Chef.  First, the characters are overused stereotypes. We get Jon Favreau as passionate and dedicated chef Carl Casper, Dustin Hoffman as a dull and bureaucratic manager, John Leguizamo as Carl’s outrageous hispanic friend, Scarlett Johansson as the attractive and understanding waitress, Oliver Platt as the snooty food critic, and Emjay Anthony as Carl’s estranged tech-savvy young son.  Oh, and Robert Downey Jr. turns up playing, well, himself.  Sort of.

Scarlett Johansson equating eating with sex
Scarlett Johansson equating eating with sex

If you’ve ever imagined a restaurant kitchen in your head, you’ve already pictured all the characters in Chef in as much depth as this film chooses to show them.  There are no surprises here, and no-one is acting against type.

The plot of Chef is basically the plot of Pixar’s Ratatouille only not as sophisticated.

My second problem is the sentimental and unlikely plot.  After losing his job as head chef in a family restaurant, Carl spends his summer touring through the southern United States, serving great food and bonding with his son.  When it’s all over and Carl is a culinary hero, he reunites with his ex-wife and the two of them remarry.  Because of course they do.  I mean, I’m sure we’ve all experienced the power of a grilled cheese sandwich to mend any relationship.

My third problem is that the plot of Chef is basically the plot of Pixar’s Ratatouille only not as sophisticated.  Carl is desperate to impress a big-time food critic.  After failing once, he gets a second chance.  This time, the food critic is so impressed that he offers to fund a new restaurant with our hero in complete control of the kitchen.  Frankly it was more fun the first time around with a rat and his human puppet.

Carl and co. taste some delicious pork in Chef
Carl and co. taste some delicious pork in Chef

My fourth problem is the film’s bizarre fixation with the power of Twitter.  Characters send tweets and little Twitter logos fly chirping into the sky, delivering wonderment to the world and collecting thousands of followers for our man Carl and his touring food truck.  It’s like the restaurant industry got into bed with Twitter and decided to make a promotional film.

In the two-hour running time I could have made at least four of those dishes myself and actually had a chance to taste them.

So there’s plenty to pick at with Chef.  It all leaves us with a lack of effective drama.  Indeed, for the second half of the film, there’s virtually no conflict whatsoever.  That’s incredibly rare in film, but it’s not a unique trait that works in Chef’s favour.  There’s a reason it’s unusual, and that’s because conflict is pretty essential to any good dramatic arc.

From the point that Carl embarks on his personal reinvention from the kitchen of an old beat-up food truck, he encounters no resistance.  An old colleague turns up to help, his son chips in, a local band of labourers helps him clean up the truck, his food is popular, he takes off on social media, every town he visits greets him with more customers than the last, the food critic loves him, his son loves him, his ex-wife loves him….  There’s no snag!  I kept expecting the last minute crisis, but it never came.

Carl's ex-wife helps him sell sandwiches because duh
Carl’s ex-wife helps him sell sandwiches because duh

With no conflict in the second half, there’s no challenge for Carl to overcome, and with no challenge to overcome there’s no growth or drama.  And so it all comes back to the food porn.  That’s all there is to keep Chef together.

It’s like going to a restaurant that has an incredible menu and fun ambiance, but the kitchen forgot to make any actual food.

Does it work?  Is food porn enough of a reason to watch Chef?  I’ll admit I was half entertained by it, and the food really did look great, but in the two-hour running time I could have made at least four of those dishes myself and actually had a chance to taste them.  It would be a better use of anyone’s time to stay home, put your best frying pan on a high heat, and sear something fresh and delicious.  It will look and sound great, but it will also be satisfying.

Porn has never been a cinematic achievement, and food porn is no different.  Chef is a feast for the eyes, but there’s not a lot else to recommend it.  It’s like going to a restaurant that has an incredible menu and fun ambiance, but the kitchen forgot to make any actual food.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: