Not too far into “Chef,” the title character, a working chef named Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) cooks a grilled cheese sandwich for his 10-year-old son, Percy (Emjay Anthony). It’s nothing special — just bread, butter, and cheese — but rarely have I so wanted to reach into the screen and take a bite. It’s the attention being given to the food, by Favreau the actor and Favreau the writer-director-foodie: The camera hovers over the melting repast with a proper sense of wonder and accomplishment. You can just do this? Amazing!
If “Chef” were a meal, it would be comfort food, but comfort food made with fresh, locally sourced ingredients and prepared by people who care about what they’re doing. You’ve eaten it before — many times — and for a reason. When done right, it can hit the sweet spot far more satisfyingly than the $40 assiette of lamb.
Ten years ago, Carl was a hot young talent on the nouvelle cuisine scene, but when the film opens, he’s veering toward crisis. He’s the star attraction of a Los Angeles restaurant owned by Riva — Dustin Hoffman in a noodgy little cameo — who forces Carl to rest on his established recipes and not mess with a good lava cake.
When a food critic (Oliver Platt) pens a vicious pan, the tightly wound Carl sails over the edge. His ensuing comic tirade goes viral on YouTube and Favreau puts into the scene every bit of bile that every creative artist has felt toward a critic at one time or another. Fired, Carl has to relocate his bliss and, once found, grill it. This involves a side trip to Miami, a food truck, a cross-country return home, and the company of that wary 10-year-old son.
Like I said, you know these ingredients; it’s how they’re served that counts. “Chef” is an engaged, engaging voyage of (re)discovery that’s too in love with its subject to qualify as food porn. It’s food romance. In one scene, the frazzled hero consoles himself at home by whipping up a sumptuous grilled tuna with pureed tomatillos — and then never bothers to eat it. It’s the Zen of prep that does it for Carl, and every frame of “Chef” nods in agreement. And, yes, the movie’s almost wholly lacking in dramatic conflict other than the one inside its barrel-chested hero. If that bothers you, stay home and order takeout.
Not coincidentally, 18 years ago Favreau was the scrappy writer-star of “Swingers,” and, with his pal Vince Vaughn, positioned as the next big thing. He has since gone on to direct reasonably smart studio behemoths like “Iron Man” and “Elf,” and “Chef” finds Favreau himself trying to get back to where he once belonged: smaller-budget, dialogue-driven fare about actual people. The movie’s no one’s idea of an independent — OK, maybe a studio executive’s idea — but it’s funny and heartfelt, and it enjoys the sound of people talking almost as much as the idea of people cooking.
The frame is thus stuffed with characters: John Leguizamo as Carl’s loyal line chef and partner in food truck Cubanos, Sofia Vergara as the chef’s concerned and still caring ex-wife, Inez, Robert Downey Jr. — the once and future Iron Man — needling the hero as Inez’s first husband, Scarlett Johansson tartly affecting as a restaurant hostess dancing around her affection for Carl.
The movie’s full of people who like each other but aren’t very good at expressing it, so they feed each other miracles instead. Carl is an artist so wrapped up in his fear of failure that he neglects the son who aches to spend time with him, but his emotional turning point (and the movie’s) comes when he buys Percy his first kitchen knife and gravely conveys its importance: Here’s your first tool, the one from which everything follows. The second half of the film, with its hectic cooking scenes in the truck, bubbles with the joy of a father showing, not telling, his kid how to live.
“Chef” is fine at tootling along from city to city, meal to meal, goosed by a fabulous soundtrack of New Orleans second-line cover tunes and ferocious salsa music. (The salsero Jose C. Hernandez, a.k.a. Perico, plays Inez’s father on and off the bandstand.) It’s the film’s more calculated touches that clank: a running gag about Twitter (Carl’s a newbie, his son is a pro) starts cute and quickly turns forced, with cornball animated “tweets” flying around the screen and the growing smell of dot.com product placement. The final scenes, with every last obstacle comfortably resolved, are too good to be true and play that way.
But that’s the thing about comfort food: It leaves you feeling sated rather than gastronomically enlightened. “Chef” is jazzed by the idea of making food and sharing it with others — each side equal to the other — and that pleasure overpowers the parts of the meal that are undercooked. And if you really want the secret of that grilled cheese sandwich, stick around after the end credits, where the film’s food consultant, chef and food-truck trailblazer Roy Choi, shows Favreau how it’s done. Kids, do try this at home.