Chef: A Return to Form

Netflix Suggested Viewing

The one major bone of contention I have with this film is its treatment of the critic. Being something of a critic myself I found it a little bit harsh, a scad one sided in its personification of a food critic as being an insensitive, ignoble bully who is quick to cut down writer/directer/star Jon Favreau and his character, the eponymous Chef in question. Yes, it is easy to offend an artist who has dedicated themself to their craft for years with a well articulated piece of writing. It’s far too easy to dismiss a lot of hard work and talent after one mediocre experience with someone’s labor of love. And the primary motivation of Carl Casper and his literal journey of self reinvention is exactly that: a biting criticism of his stagnation as the head chef at an upscale restaurant. I would argue, however, that without that critique, which doesn’t come from a place of vindictiveness as much as disappointment with unfulfilled promise, he would continue to have existed in the rigid, safe confines of his work life.

It’s not hard to believe that a chef would experience this kind of stagnation in life. I love cooking. I love cooking shows. I love watching Gordon Ramsay (in the original Kitchen Nightmares, not the theatrical US version). And I love love love Anthony Bourdain. But I don’t think for a minute that I have the wherewithal, character, confidence, dedication, or insanity to ever become a full time cook. The reality of the job is in repetition and high stress environments. It’s hot sweaty bloody teamwork and repetition. It’s constant cleaning and prepping and cooking and cleaning and repetition. And it’s the service industry. Holy God. So to be really good at this job it takes more than I have and I know it. Which is why I am fascinated and respect those in the field that much more, because the really great chefs don’t just get good at cooking and stay that way. They are constantly challenging and reinventing and creating because it’s the challenge that they live for.

I’m probably paraphrasing Bourdain, it’s unavoidable as his books, shows, and writing have fully informed my vocabulary on the subject, but I believe that food cooked with love is just a little better than food cooked without it. That’s a pretty nebulous statement disguised as a belief but it’s a concept that is more than a little difficult to define. I think you can tell when someone loves cooking, you become aware of it while eating. You don’t necessarily notice when it’s not there but you know it when it is. I’ve had good Mexican food before. Good and expensive. And it was very good. And expensive. But it was not as good as the carne asada tacos made by a good friend’s abuelita, prepared on a charcoal grill in a backyard with about 20 bucks worth of ingredients. I thought I’d had a good Italian sandwich, the staple of any typical sub shop, at a genuine, popular Italian deli in Los Angeles. But I have no memory of that sub anymore after I had a volpi sandwich prepared by a tiny Sicilian woman, the Aunt of my best friend who spoke with a raspy but adorably husky voice in a nameless Italian grocery in the suburbs of Chicago. You may not notice when it’s missing but you know it when it’s there.

To return to my point it took a critic to point out what was missing from Carl Casper’s work and I think his reaction to said critic was appropriately disproportionate. He loses the high ground and, ultimately, the safety net that was also holding him back from truly exploring his craft. Although the critic is eventually somewhat humanized the fact of the matter is that when an artist puts their work out in the world they are requiring critique for validation. A painting that sits in a locked room in the dark is not art until someone knows it’s there. More so with food which has such a potential for subjective interpretation that it….

…that it….

……..because art….and….

Let me start over.

Chef is a really lovely film. It’s a welcome return to form for Favreau who is coming off of the Iron Man franchise/Cowboys and Aliens and wanted to make a small personal Indie film with people he wanted to work with. The cast shows it in a big way, it’s replete with Hollywood A-List stars who command salaries bigger than the films total budget. It shows that this a labor of love and it’s thoroughly enjoyable as a result. Maybe lacking in conflict and a little obvious at times, it still has heart in surplus and is the perfect film for Netflix and a quiet evening with a home cooked meal.

There is a very cool post credits behind the scenes moment that describes the theme of the film beautifully, with Favreau and the chef consultant Roy Choi as they go through the process of making, not kidding, a grilled cheese sandwich. I took special meaning and inspiration from this clip because the first time I really tried to cook something myself, at the tender age of 24, it was a grilled cheese sandwich. Hand to God, I had to call my best friend and ask her how to do it, step by step, because up until that point I knew that they were delicious and I knew what the probable components were but I had no idea how one got from Point A to Point B. Now, years later, I can cook a steak, build a twice-baked potato, and sauté asparagus that would make your socks shoot up and down your legs like a cartoon from the 1940s. But it took years of patience and screwing up and dedication to find the moment that Chef Choi explains in that post credits scene with a few words that I’ll paraphrase. Nothing else exists except you and what you’re cooking. And if you fuck it up it’s the end of the world..

In the end Chef, is really a story about a man and his son reconnecting, a man and his passion for cooking being rekindled, and a very good writer and director making a film he wanted to make out of love for the craft. And, just like good cooking, you don’t always know when love is missing from the final product, but you absolutely know when it’s not.

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