Jon Favreau, best known for directing and producing superhero blockbusters like Iron Man and Avengers, returns to his indie roots by illustrating a high-maintenance chef's complicated relationship with food, his career, his ex-wife and, most of all, his young son.
Master chef Carl Casper has plenty of people in his life that he genuinely cares about, with his 10-year-old son, Percy, chief among them. But the love of Carl's life isn't actually a person at all. It's food. Which explains why he's divorced and why even spending time with Percy has turned into an on-again-off-again proposition.
Instead, Carl lives to concoct savory delicacies. Night and day he labors, dreaming up mouthwatering morsels that propel food critics into rapturous, hyperbolic praise.
That's what happened 10 years ago when Carl donned the chef's hat at a tony Los Angeles eatery owned by a persnickety entrepreneur named Riva. When the doors opened, fabled food critic Ramsey Michel was among the first to arrive. Carl did not disappoint. And Ramsey's glowing review rocketed the chef's career into the stratosphere.
A decade later, Carl is hoping for another boost when he learns that Ramsey will be making an encore visit. And so he prepares an exquisite new menu—which Riva promptly vetoes. Stick with the crowd-pleasers, Riva intones authoritatively, the favorites that bring people back year after year.
And Ramsey gags.
"His dramatic weight gain can only be explained by the fact that he must be eating all the food sent back to the kitchen," the critic writes.
Commence Carl's meltdown.
It starts with a nasty tweet to Ramsey. Then a face-to-face, f-word-laden confrontation between the chef and the foodie at the restaurant goes supernova on YouTube. Suddenly, the now unemployed chef has literally hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers … and nothing to serve them.
Struggling to pick up the jagged pieces of his shattered career, Carl agrees to travel with his affable ex-wife, Inez, and Percy to Miami. He also capitulates to a suggestion Inez has been making for years: getting a food truck and running his own business. His way. Lucky, then, that another of Inez's ex-husbands (Marvin) runs an equipment rental company in Florida.
Just like that, Carl's back in business with a freshly painted food truck and a new lease on life. One of his line cooks, Martin, flies to Miami to run the truck with him and to help him drive it from there back to L.A. And Percy, of course, begs to tag along with Dad. Though Carl's initially reluctant to embrace that brainstorm, he relents, and Mom gives her blessing too.
That's when Carl Casper discovers that owning a food truck is not only the best career move he's ever made, it might just be the best thing that's ever happened to his relationship with his young son.
At the outset of Chef, Carl is as narcissistic as he is creative. Theoretically, he cares about his son. But the fact that he has little time for the boy, forgets to pick him up from school and often wants to offload him on his mother as soon as possible all say loud and clear that what matters most to this celebrated chef is his food, not his family.
That's about to change, though. The combination of quitting his job and traveling with his ex-wife and son to Florida reshapes Carl's perspective. Inez is busy in Miami (we never really know what the fabulously wealthy woman does), so Percy spends all of his time with his father. Together, Carl and Percy clean up the horrifically filthy food truck that Marvin "blesses" them with. And as they work together, first cleaning, then cooking, father and son begin to bond.
That bond deepens on the long road trip home. Percy proves to be a hard worker and a good cook too as he, his dad and Martin make regional delicacies at each stop (New Orleans, Austin, etc.). Carl teaches Percy important lessons about cooking, such as the way a good chef cleans and takes care of his primary knife, for instance. The two also learn how to patch things up after Dad gets pretty frustrated with his son at one point (then later apologizes for being "mean").
Percy also proves to be a natural-born marketer: He tweets the food truck's location wherever they go and is constantly shooting video and photos to upload to social media sites. As a result, there's always a long line of people waiting to meet the deranged genius chef from that infamous YouTube video. At one point, Percy sweetly says of working with his dad, "It's cool hanging out, talking and learning new things with each other."
By journey's end, Carl has become a more engaged and emotionally healthy dad who's learned to love and work with his young son. On top of that, Inez is quite taken with her ex-husband's renewed commitment to the lad, and the couple gets remarried, adding a happily ever after family vibe to the already strong message about the importance of fatherhood.
Carl's cooking and wait staff, as well as his ex-wife, show remarkable patience and loyalty in putting up with the chef's considerable list of character flaws and foibles.
The hostess at Carl's restaurant is a buxom woman named Molly who frequently wears tops that put her cleavage on display. Conversation hints that they've been lovers. And when Carl prepares a meal for her at his apartment (in a scene that suggestively depicts his cooking as a kind of foreplay), she looks on appreciatively from his bed, a shirt hanging off her bare shoulder.
Inez also wears cleavage-baring outfits. An awkward conversation revolves around whether she last slept with Carl or her second husband. Martin crudely holds a long piece of bread up to his crotch (in front of Percy). Carl and Martin sing Marvin Gaye's song "Sexual Healing" quite vociferously (also in front of Percy). There's talk about who got whom pregnant, sexual cheating, threesomes, oral sex and taking pictures of sexual organs. There are a few crude jokes along those lines. And when Percy introduces his dad to Twitter, Carl asks, "Is this for sex?" In Miami, we see women in skimpy bikinis. Men and women dance sensually at a club.
Percy watches a comedic, blood-spattered video of a man getting shot with a machine gun by a cat.
Crude or Profane Language
It's noteworthy that we hear a couple of references to Fox's reality cooking show Hell's Kitchen. That show boasts quite a lot of foul language … just like this movie does. The big difference between them? F-words are bleeped on TV. Indeed, there are about 50 f-words here (including one or two paired with "mother") and the same number of s-words. "P‑‑‑y," "d‑‑n," "a‑‑," "a‑‑hole" are uttered six or seven times each. We also hear about a half-dozen crude references to the male anatomy. One cook calls another a "douche." Jesus' name is taken in vain once, God's three times (once with "d‑‑n").
Carl rebukes Percy for using bad language but of course uses it himself in front of his son.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Alcohol includes beer, shots and wine, and it's served up throughout. After a hard day of cleaning the food truck, Carl and Martin have a beer. When Percy asks if he can have a taste, his dad lets him. Then, when the boy spits the beer out and says, "Tastes like p‑‑‑," Carl tells him to remember that when someone offers him a drink in high school.
Carl and Martin smoke cigars. Carl and Molly smoke a marijuana joint. Cigarette smoking is seen as well.
Other Negative Elements
Martin pours cornstarch down his pants while driving, explaining to Percy that it's a cook's makeshift cure for being too sweaty. Dad concurs, and then he and Percy both dump the powder down their pants as well.
Have you ever tried to bake up something scrumptious only to have it fall flat and leave you saying, If only I had remembered to use the baking soda instead of the baking powder. Or maybe, If only the heat had been turned down to 350 from 425.
Chef is just like that.
Writer/director/producer/actor Jon Favreau serves up a labor of love with a tender message about a self-absorbed dad who wakes up to see how great it is to be a father. Admittedly, it takes him a good while. But as Carl mentors his son in the fine art of cooking, and as the boy mentors his dad in the fine art of social media promotion, they forge a connection that they've never enjoyed before. It's the kind of movie you half expect to have Harry Chapin's famously tear-inducing "Cats in the Cradle" playing over the closing credits.
Alas, there's that maddening "If only …" tunneling through the tender core like a worm wriggling its way through a deliciously ripe apple.
If only the recipe hadn't called for 130 profanities.
If only Carl didn't tell dirty jokes and spit out obscenities in front of his son.
If only he didn't smoke that joint with Molly.
If only sexual innuendo wasn't slathered on like frosting.
If only I didn't have end this review by talking about how all those ingredients combine to give us a sweet story with a seriously sour aftertaste.