The problem with food movies is that they are fundamentally incapable of expressing the two most important things about their subject: smell and taste. Don't mention Smell-O-Vision. A scratch and sniff card can no more evoke a beautifully cooked plateful of food than a kazoo can accurately reproduce Beethoven's Ninth. The end results are the same: faintly amusing but not the experience you want.
That's probably why there have been so few films explicitly about the subject. And of course, they can't just be about food–as much as I enjoy the M&S adverts, I couldn't sit through 90 minutes of them. All the good food movies deal with those aspects of the human condition that we most readily connect with food: love, sex and family. Look at Babette's Feast, where a woman expresses gratitude for the community that has taken her in by cooking them an extraordinary banquet. Or Big Night, a film that tracks the struggle for supremacy between two feuding brothers, which culminates in a remarkable wordless climax where they cook breakfast together. Tampopo contains one of the sexiest scenes featuring an egg yolk that you'll ever see.
Jon Favreau, he of Iron Man and presidential speech-writing fame, has taken a risk with Chef, his latest movie. Food films don't do well at the box office, for the reasons I've mentioned above. But Chef is first and foremost a film about the sacrifices that a really good cook will make to get to the top, and what happens when he's forced to reinvent himself–a process that reconnects him with the things he holds dearest.
OK, Cliffe Notes (and note that from this point, a SPOILER ALERT is in operation). Favreau plays Carl Casper, a top chef who feels as if he's stuck in a rut. It's a feeling that's starting to come out in his cooking. He's filling the house every night, and his boss is happy. But the reviews are stinkers, and Casper is starting to lose his way. After a cake-crushing meltdown in front of his food critic nemesis, Casper buys a ratty old food truck, and goes back to basics, cooking and selling the food he loved back in the day. With his estranged son and buddy line chef in tow, Casper sets off on a road trip that takes in some of America's culinary hotspots, and finds the flavour in life again.
So, it's a bit on the nose from an elevator pitch. But Chef works, for me, because it's good on the details. Favreau spent months in restaurant kitchens, working his way up from herb-chopping to line work. The restaurant scenes feel authentic and sharply observed, down to the way Casper cleans down his station att the end of a shift. Favreau enlisted the help of food truck maestro Roy Choi and Texas barbecue pit king Aaron Franklin to give his film some old-school patina. That's Choi's Cubano that everyone's talking about, and Mitchell serves fall-apart pork shoulder just like the one in the movie every day.
The clever thing about Chef is the way it dials into modern trends in food fandom. Food trucks and real-deal meat-smoking are obsessions with many foodies. Favreau also nails the importance of social networking to the scene: Instagram and Twitter are the way a lot of people initially hear about the hot places to eat, whether that be a Michelin-starred joint or a high-sider on a street corner pushing out the greatest food you can get on a paper plate. Let's also note here that Casper's meltdown is sparked off by a food blogger, not a traditional critic.
Chef is a deeply sensual, warm and funny film, with a great soundtrack of classic Cuban cuts, reggae and blues and solid performances from Favreau and his supporting cast. John Leguziamo buzzes and pops as Casper's line chef buddy, and Emjay Anthony, playing his son, is sweet and charming. I thought it was a shame that Scarlett Johannsen and Dustin Hoffman seem to disappear once Casper gets his food truck (which is a lust object in and of itself: that chrome! that griddle!) and that we didn't see more of Carl's life pre-restaurant in Miami. Where does that love of Cuban food come from? Maybe a director's cut is in the offing. Anyway, I wanted to see more, which has to be a good thing.
With the long-mooted adaptation of chef Anthony Bourdain's autobiographical/crime novel Bone In The Throat finally looking like it's going in front of cameras, there's a chance we could be seeing more interesting movies set in the world of food. On the evidence of Chef, I'd be happy to see more. The film has the highest of accolades from me–TLC and I left the cinema absolutely starving hungry.