Chef, written, directed, produced, and starring Jon Favreau is a good film. It’s not a great film, but it is a good one. It’s very simple, certainly not a film concerned with fancy techniques or genre changing innovation, but it’s charming in its own way. However, its purpose becomes much clearer once you’ve watched it’s companion piece, The Chef Show, a small documentary series made by Favreau and his friend/tutor/chef Roy Choi.
Favreau first gained attention as an actor and screenwriter in the 1990s, but has become more recently known for his work on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, kicking the whole thing off with his directorial work on the first Iron Man and subsequently working in various capacities on many of the biggest films in the franchise. All of this work has no doubt bought Favreau the freedom to pursue the projects that he really wants to, and Chef definitely falls into that category. It’s not quite a passion project for Favreau, but it’s not quite a vanity project either. Instead, it sits somewhere in the middle - a “Because-I-Can Project”. Wish-fulfilment and a film of fantasy.
In a 1969 interview with Roger Ebert, Alfred Hitchcock said that “a story is simply a motif, just as a painter might paint a bowl of fruit just to give him something to be painting,” and that certainly feels like the case with Chef. The plot really is pretty basic and paint-by-numbers. A chef at a high-end restaurant in LA becomes burnt out and disenchanted with the creatively stifling, restrained nature of the restaurant scene and decides to go out on his own, starting up a food truck. There’s an autobiographical slant to all of this. Favreau has said that he felt similarly after working on so many big budget blockbusters for Marvel, wanting to scale down and make something more akin to an indie film. He also just wanted to be a chef for a while.
Favreau trained at a culinary school, and even worked briefly as a line cook as research and preparation for the film. Roy Choi, a chef who established his own food truck company, Kogi Korean BBQ, was brought on as a consultant and eventually upgraded to the role of producer. Choi was responsible for keeping the film “real” when it came to the food, and oversaw the preparation and cooking of all the food seen on screen.
The rest of the cast are all clearly having a great time, with many being Favreau’s friends in real life. And that’s certainly the vibe you get while watching. John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale are great as a comic duo of cooks working under Favreau’s Carl Casper. But it’s the father/son dynamic that is the core and heart of the film, and both Favreau and Emjay Anthony, in a commendable performance, create a convincing and affecting relationship.
Cameo’s from Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr are a lot of fun, and Oliver Platt does a great job of being a pompous food critic. Sofia Vergara is her usual enticing, voluptuous self as Favreau’s ex-wife, which is one of the main sticking points for me, and the only clear case of vanity in the project; the fact that Favreau’s characters romantic interests are two of Hollywood’s biggest sex symbols, while Favreau is certainly not. It’s not a film breaking decision, but it is jarring to see, as neither coupling feels genuine. The film seems to strive for a sense of reality, but those two key romantic relationships couldn’t be more Hollywood if they tried.
While Chef doesn’t do anything truly new or take any big risks, it doesn’t make too many missteps either. It’s generally well-balanced and fun, with moments of affecting emotion sprinkled through, although the end was unfortunately a bit too sweet for me. But much like a food truck, it’s aims to be a simple crowd pleaser and, in that regard, it succeeds.
The true success of Chef, however, is the spawning of The Chef Show, a documentary-style Netflix spin-off. Produced again by Favreau and Choi, it’s another example of the former just wanting to play chef again, but with even less pretence of anything else. He doesn’t bother writing a film in which to couch his desires. He just gets Choi, a camera, some ingredients and some guests, and gets cooking.
Favreaus says as much in the first episode. When Chef finished filming, he could no longer follow Choi around and continue learning how to cook, describing the end of the experience as akin to a breakup. And so, with no real plan on what he was actually doing, Favreau organised The Chef Show and started filming. It’s a rambling, paired back show, and it’s utterly endearing. It’s fascinating to watch Favreau and Choi shamble around, finding out what the show is as they make it. They start off with celebrity guests (Gwyneth Paltrow and comedian Bill Burr), but it quickly becomes clear that it’s not that kind of show. Or is it? Favreau and Choi don’t know. They just want to cook some food.
And in that regard, it’s refreshingly irreverent when it comes to the food too. Although perfectly well shot, there are no food-porn cinematography of perfectly plated meals as in the much celebrated Chef’s Table, another Netflix staple. On the flipside, however, there’s no reality TV melodrama that you find in those competitive cooking reality shows. The Chef Show is alternatively very simple and down to earth. Favreau and Choi cook, and then eat it immediately. This is not food as fashion or art. This is food as food. This show, more than any other cooking show, really feels like an authentic glimpse at what a being a chef is actually like. More often than not, it’s about the preparation, the process of cooking. The passion.
And it’s that passion that is most endearing about The Chef Show. Favreau is somewhat of a giant in the film world. He’s played a major role in the most dominating film franchise of a generation. Which makes it all the more fascinating, and quite inspiring, to watch him so eagerly take on the role of student in another field. The dynamic between Favreau and Choi is delightful to watch, with Favreau, like a nervous child, showing his work to Choi, eagerly awaiting his approval or criticisms. His desire to learn is infectious. There’s even something approaching rivalry in some episodes as Favreau starts to cook Choi’s recipes even better than Choi does. Although this often seems to be because Choi, with the confidence of an artist, is constantly tinkering and changing his recipes, searching for something new, while Favreau has been diligently following every word of Choi’s recipes to the letter, not realising a recipe that’s only six months old is now old news to Choi. Even to the point that Choi doesn’t seem to recognize some of his own recipes.
Chef is comfort food and film fantasy. A well-made, but ultimately unsurprising piece of by-the-book filmmaking. But as much as Favreau wanted to shed some of the Hollywood trappings, he can’t avoid cinematic clichés entirely. It strictly follows the recipe for a crowd pleaser, so it pleases, but it doesn’t surprise. Perfectly fine for an enjoyable evening, but I doubt I’ll go back to it.
The Chef Show feels much more like reality. It’s about two friends, bonding together over a love of food. Sometimes a bit messy, and not everything goes to plan, but that’s what makes it interesting and surprising. Truly unpretentious and honest, it’s quickly become a favourite of mine. I really, really hope they make a second season, and if not, I’ll just go back and watch the first season again.