As writer, director, producer and actor, Jon Favreau has toiled for so long on the epic Hollywood battlefields of the Iron Man franchise and Cowboys & Aliens that you may forget his unique indie start with Swingers and Made. Chef marks Favreau's triumphant return to personal filmmaking. It's an artful surprise and an exuberant gift. Once you get past the big names in the cast, Chef sits you down to the modest pleasures of a dish served with simplicity and loving finesse. It's one from the heart.
Favreau, an underrated actor in his best screen performance to date, stars as Carl Casper, the master chef at a chic L.A. restaurant. His workaholism has cost Carl his marriage to Inez (Sofia Vergara) and a fulfilling relationship with their 11-year-old son, Percy (a terrific Emjay Anthony). Carl enjoys a casual hookup with Molly (Scarlett Johansson), his floor manager. But, creatively, Carl is stuck in a successful rut. If you're thinking there are parallels here between Favreau and the chef, you may be on to something.
The catalyst for change comes in the person of Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt, superb), a much-feared food blogger who decides to review Carl for the first time in a decade. Foodies will salivate at the scenes in the kitchen, as Carl preps a new menu with the grill chef (John Leguizamo) and the sous-chef (Bobby Cannavale). Favreau makes these moments come vibrantly alive. Creativity, unencumbered by compromise, is a thrill for anyone, chef or director. It's the restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman) who interrupts Carl's orgasmic joy. Citing the expectations he'd have at a Stones concert, he insists Carl serve his greatest hits.
Carl complies. The review is scalding. Carl retaliates on social media, castigating the critic ("You shit on my shit"). Viral combat breaks out. Having lost his job, Carl refurbishes an old food truck, supplied by Inez's ex-husband (a tangy cameo from Robert Downey Jr.), and hits the road (Miami, Austin, New Orleans), making gourmet Cuban food with his friends and his son by his side.
Don't let the uplift get you down. Chef is deliciously entertaining, comic, touching and often bitingly true, since Favreau is happily allergic to jokes without a character base. All the actors are aces, with Vergara showing a subtlety and depth outside the range of her role on Modern Family. Buoyed by a Latin-flavored score and Favreau's knack for improv inspiration, Chef is the perfect antidote to Hollywood junk food. Like the best meals and movies, this irresistible concoction feels good for the soul.