Anyone who has curled their knuckles over the back of an onion, obsessed over every detail of a grilled cheese sandwich or taken any other step to produce anything remotely edible in their own kitchen, has somewhere in the recesses of their minds harbored a fantasy of opening their own restaurant. Whether or not this culinary fantasia is taken seriously, it is filled with flashy knife skills, stunning dishes that make customers swoon, kitchen camaraderie, lots smiles and no fewer than four stars.
The movie Chef, which opens in Dallas this weekend, plays out a lot like these fantasies. Save for one scene featuring chef Carl Casper (played by Jon Favreau, who wrote and directed the film) and his son putting a little elbow grease into a reclaimed food truck, the kitchen scenes in this film about a chef's renaissance after a colossal failure play out exactly as they are expected to in the minds of culinary civilians. There are no cuts, burns only hurt for a second and the arduous nature of prep work is glossed over, much like it is on cooking shows on TV.
What is shown, however, will resonate with anyone who loves food or good movies. Casper leaves his job a reputable chef at an L.A. restaurant to try to find his culinary muse. Urged by his ex-wife, he travels to Miami, is seduced by what looks like a pretty mediocre Cuban sandwich, and decides that a food truck will deliver his redemption. All of this is a backdrop to some serious food porn that will make your tub of popcorn look as bad as it really is.
As expected in any chef-driven drama, a pretentious food critic plays the villain. A scathing review crosses past traditional criticism into personal attacks and fat jokes and devolves into a dining room confrontation that's captured for the masses on YouTube. Unfortunately, it's Casper that ends up with lava cake on his face because of a tired menu. He's forced to pack his knives and regroup, which he eventually does through a cross-country journey in a refurbished food truck.
Sure, a lot in this movie is far-fetched: a ramshackle vehicle with wonky tires becomes a sleek Cubano machine almost overnight; permits appear about as quickly; city enforcement is actually nice when parking violations occur; and a surprise visit to Franklin's Barbecue features brisket that's still available in the late afternoon. (Favreau has called the brisket he ate there the best food he ate during production.) But the food imagery is mesmerizing, and the camaraderie inside a rickety truck is infectious enough to make you think that the restaurant fantasy you've had wasn't far off at all. It was only missing wheels.