Chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) suddenly quits his job at a prominent Los Angeles restaurant after refusing to compromise his creative integrity for its controlling owner (Dustin Hoffman), he is left to figure out what's next. Finding himself in Miami, he teams up with his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara), his friend (John Leguizamo) and his son to launch a food truck. Taking to the road, Chef Carl goes back to his roots to reignite his passion for the kitchen -- and zest for life and love.
'Chef' is far from the first film where a notable Hollywood figure (in this case, writer/producer/star Jon Favreau) has gathered up some of his close pals and associates to make a passion project, but it's certainly the most successful example of it in recent memory, as this movie is a delight to watch virtually from beginning to end. It's the kind of film you wish Hollywood would make a lot more of – a risky idea (was there a big demand for a film about a chef?) that turned into perhaps the best movie on Favreau's resume (and, yes, I'm including the first Iron Man in my assessment).
Favreau stars as Carl Casper, a chef who works in a trendy Los Angeles restaurant, but who feels pigeonholed by the owner of the establishment (played by Dustin Hoffman), who insists Casper doesn't branch out with the menu, but instead stick with the same-old/same-old that has been making the restaurant money for years. When an online food critic (played by Oliver Platt) decides to come in and review the place for his blog, Casper wants to try a whole new menu, but the owner insists he stick with the current one. The result is a scathing review by the critic, which turns into a Twitter war with Casper and results in him being fired from the restaurant.
Casper's home life isn't a whole lot better than his working one. He's a divorced dad to his son, Percy (a very solid, realistic performance by young Emjay Anthony), but still very close to his ex-wife, Inez (Sofia Vergara). Inez has been telling Casper for years that he should give up on the restaurant business and start his own food truck, and Casper's firing provides the perfect opportunity to try the idea out. The second half of 'Chef' has our primary characters traveling from Los Angeles to Miami, where Casper establishes a food truck business, then decides to drive it back across the country – making a name for himself and his menu along the way.
There's nothing particularly complicated or perhaps even fresh (other than the cooking angle) about the screenplay here, but it's obvious that the actors are having a lot of fun playing their parts, and that enjoyment is translated to the audience. Favreau has employed a small tribe of Hollywood notables for his film, including (in addition to those already mentioned) Scarlett Johansson, John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, and – in a hilarious dry-witted cameo – Favreau's pal Robert Downey, Jr. It's also worth noting that while 'Chef' is certainly a comedy, it's not a comedy in either a 'one-liner' or slapstick sort of way. Rather, it finds humor in everyday life and circumstances, which I think is why the movie appealed to me so much. Despite all the star power, the movie and its characters feel 'real'.
Although I usually don't dissect a single scene in my movie reviews, there's one in 'Chef' that I think everyone will want to check out. It comes about half-way into the movie, and it's the point where Casper and his critic nemesis come face to face, with Casper basically unloading a diatribe on the critic about how he does all the hard work, while all the critic does is write about how horrible his efforts and results are. I couldn't help but think (and I'm guessing I'm right) that this was Favreau's sly (or perhaps not so sly) way of taking a moment in his movie to rail on all the critics who have panned his films over the years. It's a fun scene, but sorry Jon…I still think Cowboys & Aliens is awful.
Despite my love of the movie, it's important to point out that 'Chef' is still not a perfect film. The eventual ending of the movie feels just a little too 'pat', with everything tied up in a bow, and, overall, the film is way longer than it should be, with the whole first hour of the movie spent setting up the premise for the rest of the story. 'Chef' would definitely be stronger if cuts were made here and there, but it's still a lot of fun to watch. With that in mind, this is definitely a film you don't want to pass by, regardless of your interest in the world of cooking. One suggestion, though…don't watch this on an empty stomach. You'll thank me later.
(Editor's Note: The recipes for Chef's signature sandwich can be found in the soundtrack's liner notes if you want to try your hand at making Cubans to munch on during the movie.)
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Chef' is served up on home video in a Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD combo pack. The discs come housed in a standard Elite keepcase, with the DVD on the inside left and the Blu-ray on the inside right. An insert contains the code for an UltraViolet and iTunes copy of the movie. A slipcover matching the artwork of the keepcase slick slides overtop. Depending on whether your player has BD-Live enabled or not, the pre-menu segment can feature any one of a number of different trailers. However, if you have BD-Live turned off, the disc itself contains trailers for 'The Green Inferno', The Fluffy Movie, a promo ad for Regal Cinemas' Regal Crown Club, plus trailers for Jarhead 2, 'The Scorpion King 4', and Neighbors (these exact same trailers are also front-loaded on the DVD). The main menu will be familiar to owners of Universal Blu-rays, as it contains the typical design, with selections running down the left side of one's screen.
The Blu-ray is region free.
'Chef' was shot digitally using primarily Arri Alexa equipment and provides a pleasant, if short of stunning, transfer to Blu-ray. There is a lot of warmth and color to the movie, but I'm happy to report that it never becomes oversaturated or overly bright, despite the rather lush Miami locale that takes up part of the second-half of the film. Skin tones are nicely natural-looking here, and consistent throughout (again, even when the movie changes locales). Black levels aren't quite inky deep, but they're strong and shadow delineation is good – there aren't many dark scenes in 'Chef', but when there are, crush is never an issue. While the movie doesn't quite 'pop' the way the best video transfers do, there's a decent amount of detail to be seen in most shots, and videophiles should be quite happy with what they get here.
An English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is the only one available here (other than the commentary track), and it's decent enough, although it really only comes to life during the movie's primarily Spanish/Cuban-themed soundtrack. 'Chef', as one can imagine, is heavy on dialogue and light on action, which means this is primarily a 'talking' film. Dialogue is pretty much exclusively limited to the front center speaker, meaning when the various musical numbers occasionally kick in, you may be reaching for your remote to turn things down. In other words, there could be a better balance here between the spoken word and the musical background…but it's not the worst I've ever heard on a Blu-ray, although it is noticeable (this is definitely a "Universal" thing, as I have other Blu-rays from them with similar soundtracks that play this way). Aside from that slight caveat, this is a decently rendered track, with some nice activity and no noticeable technical issues or glitches.
In addition to the lossless 5.1 DTS-HD MA track, subtitles are available in English SDH, Spanish, and French.
'Chef' proved to be a delightful surprise from beginning to end. Although it does come close to outstaying its welcome (it's probably about 30 minutes longer than it needs to be), there's a real joy to each and every performance here, which makes for a movie that's equally entertaining. You don't have to be a 'foodie' to get satisfaction from this full course serving of cinema. Recommended.