Jon Favreau’s Chef serves as a reminder that ruts are exciting opportunities for reinvention.
Carl Casper, an overweight chef slipping further into an apathetic streak that’s dragging him into middle age, stares at a dancing miniature skeleton attached to strings. The skeleton’s movements are being orchestrated by a street performing puppeteer. It is mouthing along to Al Green’s “Tired of Being Alone.” Carl stares with sorrowful eyes at the skeleton, stripped of its skin, guts, and heart, falling to its knees and mimicking Green’s soulful cry, “It’s a natural fact / That I wanna come back / Show me where it’s at.” Carl falls in a depressive trance, transfixed by the strings that will no doubt jerk its subject back into place so it can appease an indifferent audience. It’s not until Carl’s ten-year-old son Percy reminds him that it’s time to go that he pulls away from it.
Chef is writer/director Jon Favreau’s ode to the replenishing of one’s passion, even at the expense of financial gain. Favreau is familiar with this dichotomy between his big budget blockbusters (Iron Man and Iron Man 2) and his more modest indie darlings (Swingers and Made.) What use is box office success if it leaves its creator unfulfilled? Not to say that Favreau is displeased with his Iron Man outings, but sometimes an artist who has achieved a certain level of fame feels the need to rediscover the roots from which it grew. “We take it back to something simple,” says Carl when faced with the opportunity for his own rediscovery. Soaring and, sometimes, compromised artistry often needs sobering reminders of its more humble origins. So it was natural that Favreau wanted to come back, to see where his was at.
Chef Carl Casper (authentically played by Favreau) is a renowned Los Angeles head chef known for his exciting experimentations with classic recipes. But Carl finds himself increasingly less happy with his restaurant gig working for Riva (a stern Dustin Hoffman.) “Our place is in a creative rut,” he tells Riva who is unmoved by Carl’s concerns. “Be an artist on your own time,” he tells Carl dismissively. When forced to cook a safe and familiar menu for food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), Carl receives a scathing review for his lack of imagination in the kitchen. He has a meltdown that goes viral when he is filmed confronting Michel for his hurtful review: “You smugly just fucking shit all over my shit? . . . It hurts!”
Carl loses his job and is now poison to all restaurants due to his new viral fame. His ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) suggests opening a food truck where he could be his own boss and cook for himself, but Carl is skeptical. “I’m fucking lost,” he tells his friend-with-benefits Molly (Scarlett Johansson), to which she replies, “I think that’s a good place to start.”
With no job prospects, he travels to Miami, the birthplace of his promising cooking career, with Inez and Percy (Emjay Anthony.) After a family night out in Little Havana, they go to Versailles Restaurant for a late night meal of Cuban sandwiches. Upon Carl’s insistence for Percy to have a “real Cuban sandwich,” Inez tells him casually, “Yours are way better.” From this light encouragement, Carl decides that a food truck may not be such a bad idea. In a charming cameo, Robert Downey Jr. plays Marvin who sells Carl the food truck. “Let me see if I got something to say anymore,” Carl says to Marvin. “I don’t even know.”
With the help of Percy and a loyal line cook Martin (played with soul by John Leguizamo) Carl starts anew; scrubbing grime and mold from the food truck and souping it up with new equipment to cook their Cuban sandwiches. In their enthusiastic hands, a hunkajunk becomes the El Jefe Cubanos food truck. They take it cross country to Los Angeles, making stops in New Orleans and Austin, cooking for an ever-growing following of customers along the way. “All my credit cards are maxed out,” he tells Martin. “Yeah but you look happy,” says Martin. Embarking on something unknown, full of uncertainties, but undeniably exhilarating, Carl knew he had something, a trail worth exploring.
But the heart of his rediscovery lies with his relationship with Percy. He takes Percy with him shopping for ingredients, answers Percy’s questions ranging from food to his failed marriage, and recruits him to help on his truck. His idea to cook Cuban sandwiches comes from his desire to witness Percy eat his first authentic Cuban sandwich from Little Havana. His eventual fallout from his unsatisfying restaurant job begins with a Twitter snafu, which he learns from Percy. His growing customer base traveling from Miami back to Los Angeles is due to Percy’s savvy viral marketing through Twitter and Vine. Percy’s interest in visiting New Orleans inspires him to share beignets from Café du Monde in the French Quarter. Percy’s Vine videos that Carl watches convince him to have Percy work with him on the truck after school and on weekends. When Percy shows the slightest hint of boredom in the kitchen, Carl is quick to remind him of its importance: “Everything that’s good that’s happened to me in my life came because of that” – an epiphany Carl may not have experienced a few weeks earlier. Percy is Carl’s unsuspecting change agent, bringing about pivotal shifts in Carl’s life without fully recognizing it. Percy’s mere involvement, directly and indirectly, reinvigorates Carl.
It was after Carl found himself stripped of things he spent his life attaining (marriage, job security, money) that he chanced upon his rekindled passions. He hit a wall at his restaurant job, where he became incensed with pleasing a food critic, a sort of elusive white rabbit going down a hole where he couldn’t keep up. Michel called Carl needy; “I’m not needy. You’re not getting to me,” Carl says with his voice cracking, essentially submitting to the fact that Michel did indeed get to him. His criticism, while cruel, was honest – and Carl knew it. There was a certain desperation and lack of enthusiasm in his work at the restaurant and he had been called out on it. It set him on his journey to achieve his personal revival, in the kitchen and with his family.
It’s a seldom thing to be blatantly confronted with what we’re doing wrong in our lives, almost lucky even, but it can act as a springboard for something better – to be better. With Chef, Favreau shows us how losing everything we think we need is an opportunity to enrich the things we do.
The terrain for success, be it in your personal life or career, is peaks and valleys. There are times when you need to go downward so you can recapture the thrill of going back up. But beware of the plateaus – those endless stretches of flat ground that neither rise or fall; they promise nothing and yield nothing. To continue forward could prove to be a paralyzing feat, slowly numbing you into complacency. It is watching a dancing skeleton on a string, having its bones shuffled for onlookers, crying for someone, something to show it love again. You stare long enough, feeling any second it will find what it’s looking for. And if you’re lucky, Percy is there beside you with a tug on your arm, reminding you it’s time to move on.
Postscript: Chef has a phenomenal soundtrack that’ll guide you through your Monday. Enjoy and keep truckin’.