Funny and heartwarming, writer-director John Favreau’s independent feature, “Chef,” is just as much about cultivating a self-owned business in a jaded generation as the complexities in the bond between a father and a son. Chef Carl Caspar (also played by Favreau) works at a popular restaurant run by Riva (Dustin Hoffman,) and bussed by a mostly Latino staff. Despite his success, Carl feels stifled by the conventional feel of the recipes Riva instructs him to cook, and wants to get a little crazy creating more experimental, exotic food.
Caspar is despondent when a wildly popular food critic, Ramsay Michel (an obvious take on “Hell’s Kitchen”‘s Gordon Ramsay,) played by Oliver Platt, writes a disparaging review of his food. Carl gets into a fight online with Ramsay, which leads to the miscalculated moment when Carl bursts in on him at the restaurant and goes off on him, finally losing him his job and making him an internet sensation (someone just HAD to videotape, didn’t they?)
Carl is so caught up in his concerns at work that he doesn’t have much time for his young son, Percy (Emjay Anthony.) His ex, Inez (“Modern Family’s” Sofia Vergara) chides him in that gently condescending way when he continually fails to spend the day with Percy, but Carl just can’t seem to get his crap together. In the wake of his unemployment, Carl reluctantly starts a food truck, and his son’s involvement with the cooking and upkeep bring them closer together.
Chef Carl Caspar can be hot-tempered, and be a big child. The difference between his immaturity and that of a Will Ferrell or Seth Rogan character is that Caspar’s lack of an adult attitude is grounded in reality, Caspar makes a attempt to work on his behavior, and that he remains likable throughout his emotional hiccups and meltdowns, John Favreau is obviously invested in this character, so we are too.
I like that this film has several thematic threads- the love of food as an art form, the transformation of distant to devoted dad, and making sense of modern sensibilities and technology through the eyes of a guys who’s somewhat clues in that field. Putting family before your career- this is certainly nothing plot-wise, but somehow “Chef” manages to make the time-worn theme of a distracted dad and kiddo bonding over a shared interest (or simply forging an interest in each other) more appealing.
People watching this movie for actors Robert Downey, Jr. or Scarlett Johansson be disappointed- their roles are fairly small. But even they may be won over by the film’s big heart and accompanying lack of misty-eyed sentimentality. Emjay Anthony gives a promising first performance as Percy, Carl’s bright and technologically savvy son. You don’t have to be a food fanatic (though, really, who doesn’t like food?) to appreciate the feeling behind this movie.