Jon Favreau, writer, director and star of the delightful and engaging film "Chef," sneaks this gem into theaters during what is traditionally the big-tent season, meaning blockbusters lifted from the pages of comic books whose merits are ultimately judged by the first weekend box office gross.
Consider "Chef" to be the antidote to the big CGI-driven commercial films. As well, consider this movie to be Favreau's very personal redemptive effort (after directing "Iron Man" and "Iron Man 2") wherein he reminds us and himself, perhaps, that a small film about all the wonders and foibles of the human condition can result in a fine, entertaining narrative that is, in aggregate, a celebration of life.
At the center is Carl Casper, perfectly portrayed by Favreau, a chef in a trendy, high-end restaurant in Los Angeles. Feeling his menu is getting a bit frayed and wanting to create food that is a bit edgy and even experimental, Carl tries to convince his boss and owner of the restaurant, Riva (Dustin Hoffman), to let him take a shot at a new lineup. Alas, no sale. Riva knows that a noted food critic, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), will be arriving for a meal and he, Riva, wants to play it safe and serve the menu that gave the restaurant its name.
Carl heatedly disagrees. Result: He walks out only to return later creating a YouTube confrontation with Michel that goes viral. Suddenly, he's famous and infamous, a social media star, and out of a job.
Carl also has an ex-wife, Inez (Sofia Vergara), and a son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), 11 years old. The boy is eager to spend time with his father, who has been so driven that he has forgotten that being a good dad means understanding that quality time is a derivative of quantity time. Suddenly, Carl has time. But he still needs to be a chef. His life, by all definitions, is creating delectable food. He also has to pay the rent.
The lovely and easy-going Inez suggests that the three of them fly to Miami (their city of origin) where her successful first ex (Robert Downey, Jr.) will set up Carl with a food truck. Which he does, sort of.
The Miami visit is the long-in-coming setup for what will prove to be the most engaging part of the film: a road trip from Miami to L.A. with Carl's sous-chef, Martin (John Leguizano), from his previous gig, as well as Percy. The three of them cook local cuisine for long lines of fans at every stop, serving Carl's creations out of the windows of the food truck with a zest and satisfaction that is contagious.
Some of the cooking scenes, before the trip and during, are sumptuous. The music is bluesy and Southern, combined with vibrant Latin salsa, all backstopping the three amigos — who are a joy to hang out with.
What is also clear is that this is not just a road trip-cum-cooking, but a relationship film that allows Carl and Percy to reconnect as father and son. What Favreau does, with a light, endearing touch is avoid any bonding clichés; instead, he gives their evolving connection a solid, genuine feel that only enhances all that is irresistible about this film.
"Chef" is not a vanity film for Favreau, one in which he showcases his talents (which are considerable); rather, it offers him the opportunity to make a movie that is constructed around loving and lasting connections, between Carl and his son as well as his friend, Martin.
Of course, Favreau uses food as a concrete offering, a way of reaching out to people, a way of touching them in some small way, thus making his dishes and sandwiches a nicely served up metaphor.
Eventually the trio arrive in L.A. — after a spiffy stop in Austin, where they pick up some world-class barbeque and listen to the blues of one Gary Clark Jr., Grammy-winning singer and guitarist, playing himself, who incidentally is serving up his own version of fine cuisine. Carl and Percy, sitting on top of the truck, the sun setting, listen as Clark delivers some soulful sounds.
There is a nice surprise waiting for them in L.A. Actually, more than a few great moments. And there isn't a mean-spirited word spoken in "Chef." And best of all, regarding Carl, what was once lost now is found. Sweet.