Every culture’s cuisine includes some kind of stew. I’d define a stew as a big pot full of varied ingredients: meats, vegetables, some liquid, plus herbs and spices. You let it simmer for a long time, then serve. It’s not the most artistic of dishes, but it goes down easy. And it makes for a great analogy to Jon Favreau’s new indie, Chef.
Chef, a low-budget tribute to Favreau’s obvious passion for food, stirs together a great many ideas into one long-ish film. It’s about the excitement of food preparation, and about the contrast between trendy fine dining and the heartier fare that represents regional cuisine at its finest. It’s about the power of food critics to make or break a star chef (think Ratatouille), and about an iconoclast’s determination to forge his own path (think every rugged-individualist hero since Hollywood’s Golden Age) . It’s about SoCal foodie culture, and about cooking as a form of theatre. And it’s about a father who learns he should not be too busy to allow his young son into his life. (Is there a recent movie out there that does NOT include a kid resentful of his divorced dad’s workaholic ways?)
Favreau first made his name as the romantic lead in Swingers, a modest comedy he wrote for himself and buddy Vince Vaughn. Since then, he has mostly been known for directing hits like Elf and the decidedly big-budget Iron Man franchise. In Chef, he’s again thinking small, but has convinced a hip array of Hollywood favorites to come aboard. In the world of the movie, the faint-hearted restaurateur who clashes with Favreau’s Chef Carl Casper over the evening’s menu is played by Dustin Hoffman. Scarlett Johansson (in a fetching Bettie Page wig) is on the restaurant staff, as are line-cook John Leguizamo and sous-chef Bobby Cannavale. The very toothsome Sofia Vergara is Casper’s ex-wife (whose own successful career is hinted at but never explained). And her previous ex-husband, who becomes Casper’s unlikely benefactor, is Iron Man himself, a very funny Robert Downey Jr. Each luminary of course requires some memorable screentime, one reason why Favreau’s script seems so disjointed and so long.
Another star of the film, one who shines brightly during its closing credits, is L.A. foodie legend, Roy Choi. It was Choi, a Korean immigrant, who kicked off Southern California’s food truck craze when he started tooling around L.A. in his Kogi truck, serving up Mexican-style tacos and burritos stuffed with garlicky Korean barbecue. Each evening he’d tweet out his various stops, and hipster cognoscenti would jump into their cars, waking up their taste buds for a late-night nosh. Choi coached Favreau on his cooking skills, then functioned as his on-set food consultant. The movie’s plot line, one that shows Chef Carl walking away from the haute-cuisine world to sell Cuban sandwiches from a food truck, is a tribute to Choi’s own career path. As the final credits role, you can see Choi applying his personal TLC to perhaps the world’s most gorgeous grilled cheese sandwich. Yum!
The finished movie is a testament to the joy of simple but sumptuous cooking, and also to the way the Twitterverse has transformed our lives. The film’s big crisis starts with a flame war between restaurant critic Oliver Platt and the Twitter-novice chef. When what he thinks is a private tweet goes viral, chaos ensues. But all is not lost: as the movie shows, social media can make a career as well as break one. That’s something, of course, that Roy Choi has known for a long time.