So if you're Jon Favreau- what do you do next? He's done Iron Man 1 and 2, Cowboys and Aliens, and lest we forget he was also in Daredevil. He was most recently seen in in 'Wolf Of Wall Street', so there are some hits and misses in this filmography. Where does he go next , artistically? If I were to read more into Chef then what's on the surface, I would say much like his character, Jon is going back to where it all started. He's going back to Swingers and finding out does he have anything left to say? Did Jon mean for the movie to take on this meta discussion, or did he simply want to make a movie where he got to cook and eat really good food? That's for Jon to confirm or deny, but I choose to revel in the double meanings.
We see Chef Carl Casper at a tired, if posh restaurant. Not going to be the latest hot spot, but it is consistent and locals probably know it is a safe bet when they want a place that has molten chocolate cake. He and his crew have been working there for years, some complacency has set in. When a reviewer comes, Carl flirts with the idea of doing a new menu, stretch his wings a bit and experiment (prior experiments into sweetbreads wasn't successful. Go figure) Dustin Hoffman gets to play the dream killer and tells Carl to stick to the menu. It is safe, it works, and the restaurant isn't catering to the whims of one reviewer. The restaurant is there for all the diners, who were expecting their molten chocolate cake.
Turns out the reviewer has a soft spot for Carl. Years ago, he dined at Carl's first restaurant and was so mesmerized by the food, eating food like that was why the reviewer started blogging about restaurants in the first place. But that was years ago, and Carl is no longer the critically acclaimed young hot shot. Sounds like Jon after Swingers, right? Back in those days, Carl could do no wrong. Now? Carl can do no right, much like Mike from Swingers. Carl is divorced, with a kid he treats like a chore, he is late picking him up and minimally interacts with him. Carl's head just isn't in the game of parenting, or marriage apparently. And then Carl caves to the MAN and makes the same tired dinner for the reviewer. Who promptly takes to his blog to trash Carl's cooking, and really highlights his disappointment. He knows Carl is capable of so much more.
This turns Carl more into Mike from Swingers, and basically starts the whole downward spiral for Carl. Carl takes to social media, and wants another shot with the reviewer. He too knows he can cook a better meal and wants a chance to prove to the reviewer and himself, he's still got it. That's when the MAN says no, to which Carl says all those things you think and feel about a boss, but never really should say. The inevitable conclusion of this is that Carl is fired. Now he's unemployed, with a viral video out there showing his craziness. His ex-wife is some bigwig (played by Sofia Vergara, so her job in the movie is not important, I guess?) who has enough pull to have a PR person, but even she can't get the viral video pulled of the web. Making it even harder for Carl to even just be…where people have the internet.
His ex wife seems to be in the movie to ensure the plot moves forward, and despite all this she still believes in Carl, and tells him get a food truck. This seems like an insult to a chef who's had his own crew and restaurant, but he does get to be his own man…and so in utter humiliation he gets a food truck from his ex wife's first ex husband. A brilliant cameo by Ironman himself. Jon from Swingers couldn't have gotten RDJ then, for a multitude of reasons, mostly that was probably when RDJ was in jail, but I digress. They say necessity is the mother of invention, but what Jon Favreau has mastered in Chef and Swingers is idea that desperation, when you hit rock bottom, you really find out what you're made of. Mike (throughout Swingers) and Carl (after the viral video) are losers- losers in love, career, monetarily. However they were at least surrounded by people who cared, and who believed in them, even when they didn't always believe in themselves anymore.
Carl is lucky to have been surrounded by such family- the same kid he's basically neglected drums up business for the food truck, as they take the truck cross country. Along with sous chef Martin, played by John Leguizamo, they get to eat their way through the Cuban sandwiches of Miami , the etouffee and po boys of New Orleans, and the brisket of Texas. I watched this on a plane and was hungry the whole time. I wouldn't blame Jon for simply doing this movie for the craft services.
In Swingers, Jon's best friend was Trent. In this movie, the side kick is his son Percy, who comes to understand that his dad isn't the kind of person who will go play catch or remember what time pick up is. He's the kind of dad who has one love, one passion, and that is food. And he does it very well. In a way it is celebrating being the master of your domain, if you're not a jack of all trades, that's ok. Throughout the trip Carl is sharing with Percy his love of cooking, the one thing in the world that matters to him, and Percy accepts him for that and they are better off because of it.
If you haven't guessed, I really like Swingers, and I really liked Chef. It is the same arc, about finding out what you're made of when life doesn't deal you a winning hand. In the movie, Carl views the food truck as a test, to see does he have anything left in the tank .I wonder if Jon did this movie for similar reasons? He's done the big block busters, had early success and failure. Does he have anything left to say? I think this movie is a big fat yes. If you do what you love, you don't have to cave to the MAN. You find your true north, and keep at it. Is art or food solely for the audience? I come down as a hard no, both are consumed, and the consumer has a say so. If a movie (or meal) isn't to my taste, that's ok. We are each different, but when I see someone put such dedication into the work, I have to admire it, even if it isn't for me (more applicable to shrimp etouffee than this movie, which was to my taste)