Thursday, July 3, 2014

Chef: Jon Favreau's Fun, Fresh, Feel-good, Family, Food Fest

John Favreau's summer film "Chef," may not make tons of money, but it will make many people happy.  "Chef" is a story of one man's search for happiness and finding it at the most essential level: food, family, and personal self-worth.  Jon Favreau ("Iron Man," "Elf," "Zathura") leads us on a journey that celebrates the art of food, music, friends, traveling, and family.  "Chef" is loosely based on Chef Roy Choi who was chef de cuisine at the Beverly Hilton in 2007 and then left to follow his passion by creating a menu that could be sold from a food truck.  Favreau wrote, directed, and stars in "Chef" with an ensemble cast that includes Robert Downey Jr. ("Sherlock Holmes," "Iron Man," "Less Than Zero"), Scarlett Johansson ("Iron Man 2," "The Prestige"), John Leguizamo ("To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar," "Ice Age") and Dustin Hoffman ("Rain Man," "Tootsie").  Sofia Vergara, ("Modern Family") plays Favreau's ex-wife.  She is the semi-mythical hot sexy ex-wife who will do anything for her ex-husband.  Yeah, that's her. There is a saying in show business about never starring with kids and animals, as they will always steal all the scenes.  That is exactly what Emjay Anthony ("It's Complicated") does as he plays Favreau's and Vergara's 10 year-old son.  Oliver Platt has a few scenes as the staunch food critic that 'ruins' Favreau's character's career.  The MPAA gave "Chef" an R rating for language, and some suggestive male bonding references.  The film runs just under 2 hours and worth every minute.

Be forewarned this film has some scenes that can only be categorized as 'Food Porn.'  For 'El Jefe' Chef Carl Casper (Favreau) who is at the peak of his career as chef de cuisine at a respected Los Angeles restaurant, owned by Riva (Hoffman).  As usual, Carl's day is busy and revolves around dinner at the restaurant.  Hurriedly he must go to the market, find ingredients, and pick up his 10 year-old son to take him to school, get back to the restaurant, and get the line cooks prepping for dinner.  Unlike "Hell's  Kitchen's" celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, or British comedian Lenny Henry from the old BBC TV show "Chef!," Carl conducts his kitchen in a professional and respectful manner when motivating his kitchen staff including his two line cooks, Tony (Bobby Cannavale) and Martin (Leguizamo).  That night, food critic and blogger Ramsey Michel (Platt) is coming to review the restaurant, and most importantly, the food.  Carl wants a new exciting menu that is creative and fresh.  Riva wants the same tried and successful menu that has worked for a good part of 10 years.  Needless to say, as perfect as the meal was, Ramsey Michel gave Casper and company a horrible ad hominem shots at Carl about his weight and lack of creativity.  While contemplating how he is going to come back from this humiliation, he talks 'dirty' to restaurant host and Carl's current love interest, Molly, played by the lovely Scarlett Johansson.  When I say talking dirty, I mean the decadence that is fine food created by a master chef.

Although the year is 2014, many people aren't technically inclined as others and Carl falls in with the technically challenged crowd when it comes to Social Networking.  This is where Percy (Emjay Anthony) comes in.  Armed with a cell phone, Percy is Facebook, Twitter savvy, and helps his dad get onto Twitter.  Carl asks, 'This is just like texting, right?'  Percy, tells him no, but it's clear Carl doesn't get it when he starts flaming Ramsey on Twitter thinking the texts are private.  

After a throw down where Carl not only loses his job as head Chef, he also loses his mind and has a meltdown that another restaurant patron felt obliged to capture for YouTube, he finds himself a flash in the pan of an Internet sensation.  

Throughout the scenes leading up to his exit from Riva's, Carl performs for the camera some amazing culinary prep work, and displays the magic in making the most extraordinary and mouthwatering grilled cheese I ever saw.  When I was a kid, on Sunday afternoons, my parents would take my brother and I to a little restaurant in the Santa Ynez valley just north of Santa Barbara. That is where I would watch (and take mental notes) of the proprietor making a proper Grilled Cheese sandwich with plenty of butter, sourdough bread grilled to perfection, and cheese melted into liquid gold.  The menu for Ramsey Michel's visit includes but not limited to Caviar Egg, French Onion Soup, and Filet Mignon, and for desert, Carl serves his famous chocolate lava cake.  For the throw down, which Carl prepares while at home includes a roast pork belly, with a garlic chili paste rubs, on an heirloom carrot purée with green salsa and pickled radishes.  He also makes a spicy octopus stir-fry that looks mouthwatering.  To go with the stir-fry Carl cooks up a well-seasoned ribeye steak seared to perfection, sliced thinly, and served with roasted potatoes, cauliflower, lemon, and garlic.  For desert, Chef Casper creates a dessert with macerated berries, and real whipping cream.  Unfortunately, Chef Casper never actually allows Ramsey to sample his new fresh menu delights.  

Baking is a science, but cooking is an art, and so is filmmaking.  Sometimes people like what you cook or the film you made or the painting you created, and sometimes they don't.  Like all art, it is subjective and that is where ex-wife Inez (Vergara) comes in.  She knows that his food is excellent and although she and Carl are divorced, their son Percy ties them together.  Seeing that her ex-husband isn't happy with his life, she makes him an offer to start over.  The couple started in Miami, and that is where Carl's initial inspiration came from.  In Miami, they visit the nightclub where Inez's father plays in a salsa band.  Abuelito (Jose C. Hernandez) leads the house in playing Salsa favorites that get the house and the audience moving.  Later, Abuelito reminds Carl that his sandwiches are the best Cuban sandwiches and should make one for his son.  Carl says the food you buy off the street in Miami is better, but finds himself intrigued with the idea.  Inez says she can arrange a meeting with her ex-husband Marvin (Robert Downey Jr.) who can help him get started in the Food Truck business.  As usual, Downey plays an eccentric entrepreneur, who like "Mad Men's" Burt Cooper, doesn't like shoes touching his floors.  Wearing booties, Carl and Marvin's conversation weaves around the subject and the awkwardness that only two ex-husbands of the same woman can conjure up.  The food truck Marvin gives him is a 'fixer-upper' but ultimately, like anything else in this world, with hard work and some love can actually shine.  With the help from Martin, his loyal line cook from LA, and his son's need for a father, the three of them put together one badass food truck.  What kind of food will they sell?  Cuban sandwiches of course. 

Of the music, one can say that the soundtrack is liberally seasoned with R&B and Salsa hits such as Al Green's "Tired of Being Alone,"  Jose C. Hernandez's "La Quimbumba," and Willie Colon "The Hustler," to name a few.  Knowing that one can film a major blockbuster and do it well, allows a cinematographer like Kramer Morgenthau  who was director of photography on "Thor: The Dark World Thor: The Dark World," "Fracture," and a resume that includes a whole slew of television shows like "Game of Thrones," "Boardwalk Empire," and the TV movie "The Five People You Meet in Heaven," to take the simple and direct route.  Morgenthau doesn't try to razzle-dazzle the audience, but instead takes pride in photographing the actors in their best light, and the food as if it were the film's star.  

The journey back to Los Angeles, is inspirational and in some ways somewhat schmaltzy.  Nevertheless, the trio has fun, as they go from one town to another with Percy teaching his dad the art of Social Networking, while Carl shows Percy what kind of dad he really is.  Martin shows us all a unique use for cornstarch during the long night drive in the hot muggy South.  It is said that eating and sharing food is an act of communion, not always religious, but can be very transcendent  In "Chef," the making and sharing of El Jefe's Cuban sandwiches not only puts the fallen chef back on his feet financially but also spiritually.  The cast is exceptional in supporting Favreau's passion film.  It is summer 2014 and the major summer blockbusters are holding the top spots at the box office, however, "Chef" is a film worthy of your time and attention, and when you do see it, makes sure you don't watch it on an empty stomach.  Actually, after watching "Chef," I decided to get my smoker ready, smoked myself a nice pork roast, and made my own Cuban sandwiches for my family and me.

Movie Data

Genre: Comedy
Year:  2014
Staring: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, Emjay Anthony, Sofía Vergara, Robert Downey Jr. 
Director: Jon Favreau
Producer(s): Sergei Bespalov, Sergei Bespalov, Karen Gilchrist, Olga Lesnova
Writer: JamesJon Favreau
Rating: R
Running Time: 114 Minutes
Release Date: 5/30/2014

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