Delicious comedy Chef is as close to food porn as it gets

“Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death,” roared Rosalind Russell as the screen’s eccentric Auntie Mame, a woman who wasn’t shy about feeding a variety of appetites.

Chef

Three stars (out of four)

Rated: 14A

By Linda Barnard

Special to the Advocate

“Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death,” roared Rosalind Russell as the screen’s eccentric Auntie Mame, a woman who wasn’t shy about feeding a variety of appetites.

On its surface, Jon Favreau’s delicious, full-hearted comedy Chef is as close to food porn as it gets. Sexy close-ups of robust fare are luscious. A taste of olive oil-drenched garlic spaghetti prompts the exact sound to escape from the pillowy lips of Scarlett Johansson’s character that most men dream of coaxing from her under other circumstances.

Yet there are other hungers being satisfied in Chef. And that helps make this pleasing although occasionally predictable effort more of a balanced meal.

Unfulfilled parts of his life, whether or not he acknowledges them, gnaw at professionally frustrated L.A. chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau of Swingers and Iron Man, who also wrote and directed). He’s a single dad navigating a complex relationship with ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) while treating preteen son Percy (Emjay Anthony) as an inconvenience.

Carl toils nightly in the kitchen for Riva, a condescending restaurant owner of limited vision (Dustin Hoffman) who has been content to stick to the basics for years. Miami transplant Carl dreams of dumping the bland lobster risotto for carne asada and complex Cuban flavours.

He’s urged on by his sous chef Tony (Blue Jasmine’s Bobby Cannavale, terrific), scrappy line cook Martin (John Leguizamo) and sometime girlfriend Molly (Johansson), the restaurant’s cucumber cool hostess.

It all boils over the night influential restaurant blogger Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) dines there. (The house knows he’s coming, which is never the case among reputable critics, it should be noted.) Carl loses the game of menu tug of war with Riva, who sniffs “be an artist on your own time.” He caves and cooks the standard bill of fare, including that old chestnut, molten chocolate cake, which becomes a metaphor for mediocrity throughout the rest of the picture.

The critic eviscerates Carl, right down to some fat shaming. A Twitter war erupts — aided by Carl’s ignorance of the workings of social media. Carl, an easily cowed sort despite the letters spelling El Jefe (the chief) tattooed across his knuckles, erupts with uncharacteristic fury when he reads his online smackdown. He packs up his knives and walks out.

But to do what? Turns out his wife has another ex (Robert Downey Jr. in a fun cameo) in Miami who wants to set Carl up with a food truck. It’s a junker, sort of like Carl’s life.

But there’s a chance at redemption here. Carl is reluctant at first, but maybe taking Percy along as a pseudo sous chef on the cross-country trip back to L.A. might help mend some fences while giving Carl a way to get back the culinary creativity beaten out of him lately.

With Leguizamo’s Martin enthusiastically on board, Cubano sandwiches form the bedrock of the food truck (named El Jefe) fare. A grabby soundtrack (shades of Swingers’ fantastic big band tune-work) heavy on soul and Afro-Cuban beats from the likes of Pete Rodriguez and Perico Hernandez, makes each cooking scene look like a music video.

Favreau was schooled in cookery by L.A. chef and food truck king Roy Choi and appears confident and at ease when preparing dishes, although he’s acknowledged there were some assists from professionals in close-up work. That’s OK, his enthusiasm is genuine, flooding Carl’s character with the food-worshipping soul of a chef. On a stop at an Austin barbecue joint to pick up an order of crusty, slow-cooked briskets, Carl takes one bite and all but throws the slab down on the table to ravish it.

As the three add up the miles, El Jefe (the truck and the chef) finds fame growing thanks to some savvy social media work from Percy. Father and son discover they have more in common than they thought and the connection comes via the food they make together.

Favreau has assembled a terrific cast for a road trip that is joyous and revelatory, all set to a great soundtrack, which makes the final 10 minutes of Chef so disappointing. In choosing to tie up loose ends with an obvious and too-easy ending, the delicious movie meal ends not with flair and adventure, but molten chocolate cake.

Linda Barnard is a syndicated Toronto Star movie critic.

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