‘Chef’ proves a wholesome morsel

by Andrew Kingsley | 7/21/14 3:15pm

If you’ve ever watched a cooking program like “Iron Chef America” or “Chopped” on an empty stomach, you know that feeling of painful, mouthwatering food lust. Anacharsis, an ancient Scythian philosopher said, “The vine bears three kinds of grapes: the first of pleasure, the second of intoxication, the third of disgust.” The metaphor works well for this film. The first shot of juicy limes delights you, the second shot of bubbling grilled cheese intoxicates you and the third shot of crackling bacon makes you bite your fist, whimper and wonder how moving pictures can be so cruel.

Jon Favreau’s “Chef” (2014) is food porn. The dishes, characters in themselves, are sizzling hot — all on screen just awaiting our consumption. But it’s also a food love affair, following Carl Casper (played by Jon Favreau himself) on his journey from head chef, who acts more as a prosaic orderly, to independent, revitalized food truck owner.

Casper wears his heart on his sleeve, a chef knife tattoo on his forearm and has the words “EL JEFE” emblazoned on his knuckles. He craves artistic freedom, sides with sweet breads over fillets and caters to the farmer’s market rather than the country club. Yet his obstinate boss (Dustin Hoffman), the real “jefe” of the restaurant, demands the classics. After all, he’s running a business, and sweet breads, “guts,” don’t sell — molten lava cake and caviar do.

On top of this, add the snobby, attention-craving, stock French character: food blogger Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt). It plays out like the how-could-this-get-any-worse-insert-rainstorm-here scene, as Michel writes an embittered review of Casper’s (truly his boss’s) lackluster cuisine. And after his epic Gordon Ramsay-inspired blow-up at Michel goes viral, Casper seeks a career overhaul.

The rest of the movie shows Casper obtaining and reveling in his new food truck, aptly called “El Jefe.” The drama is seasoned with the humor of his sidekick Martin (John Leguizamo) and Casper’s doting, tech-savvy son Percy (Emjay Anthony). There isn’t much conflict — they merely city-hop from Miami to New Orleans to Austin, creating lines down city blocks and pumping out delicious Cubano sandwiches to the tune of upbeat Latin jazz. It’s all right out of a stagy Food Network or Travel Channel program. Even a park policeman, who threatens to shut down the truck, turns out to be a fan of Casper’s viral video. They take a bunch of goofy photos, and everything is peaches and cream.

But like “Paper Moon” (1973) or “Nebraska” (2013) in a food truck, the movie focuses on the growing bond of Casper and Percy. So consumed with menus and reviews at the restaurant, Casper had neglected his son, leading to his divorce from his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara).​ Their journey across the country proves a bildungsroman for both father and son: Casper transforms from an irascible, egotistical, teen-like chef to a poised, driven, fun-loving father who inspires the joy of cooking in his son and in himself.

Following the lead of “Julie & Julia” (2009), “Chef” brings cooking into the 21st century, accurately capturing the state of food services in the technological age. Food trucks, blogs, tweeting, Facebook and Google Maps all cater to the consumer, which forces chefs to modernize or capsize. While many, including Casper, are reluctant to enter this “WALL-E”-esque state of hyper-consumerism, one must obey the guide to evolution of Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen: “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Casper’s old restaurant stopped running, but food trucks are humming.

Ultimately, the film isn’t some Paleo-diet kale/walnut salad critic bait but a pleasant crème brûlée, with a hard beginning, which you crack through to enjoy a savory-sweet, wholesome experience. The comfort food sits easy and is worth an order at the box office.

Rating: 8.0/10

“Chef” is playing daily at the Nugget at 4:00 p.m., 6:30 p.m. and 9:00 p.m.