As a filmmaker, there are many points in your career that you question yourself. The same goes for everyone who does what they love. You always want to do your best, and you don’t settle for “good enough.” Chef is a beautiful story about Jon Favreaus’ love of filmmaking and storytelling. I may be a little late in catching this flick, but you know what they say about being late, rather than never. If you haven’t seen the movie, I highly recommend it before reading this, as there is a bumpy road of spoilers ahead.
Favreau found much success in his career since the days of Swingers, moving on to directing one of the biggest movies of the last decade, Iron Man 1& 2. Iron man, while pulling in $620m, received mixed reviews. He then moved onto Cowboys & Aliens. Regardless of its $175m box office revenue, the truth is, unless a film pulls in at least 3x’s its budget, Hollywood feels it was a failure, and as one critic put it “hoping and rightly expecting some old school magic from the director of Iron Man, the director of Iron Man 2 showed up.”
In "Chef," Favreau exorcises many of his demons about his experience going from top-rated director, to being called the guy who screwed up Iron Man 2. Rumors abound as there were just too many cooks in the kitchen when it came to both IM2 and C&A, he turns the metaphor on its end, and treats it literally. Being an independent director myself, and someone who really loves to cook at home, I found the symbiosis of the two art forms to strike a personal nerve.
Favreau plays Chef Carl Casper, who is head Chef (the director) in a successful, upscale LA restaurant (Hollywood), owned by Riva played by Dustin Hoffman (The Studios). While Caspers success is based on the menu he created, when it comes time to make the money and impress top food critic, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), Riva stifles Casper from changing the menu to something different and creative, instead telling him to “play the classics.” In return, Michel calls the food boring and dull, far from the inspiring Chef he boasted about a decade ago. If you need that metaphor spelled out for you, then you’re not paying attention.
After a social media flame-war, Riva still doesn’t care what the critic says, because the restaurant is still busy. Regardless of wanting to re-cook for Ramsey, he’s told to either cook the same menu, or leave. Favreau even has a moment where Casper is told his future twitter posts must be pre-approved by Riva, as this entire fiasco was caused by a private conversation going public. Casper leaves the restaurant, with his staff staying behind, including his close friend behind to fill his role and begin his own career as a head chef. This seems to be a nod to Doug Liman, who had a very successful career of his own, propelled by directing Favreaus' Swingers script.
Although many may cast dispersion upon Riva for muting Caspers art, the final call lies on him for continuing to work in an environment that doesn’t reward his creativity anymore. Never shitting on the studio system, as they have proven time and time again to retain the success we all strive for, he realizes his lackluster cooking is no one’s fault but his own for allowing it to happen. While Casper feels he is putting his all into his work, it’s not until he is forced to go back to his roots and start from scratch that he understands what is truly important, remembering how amazing of a Chef he truly can be.
Returning to his independent roots, Casper is forced to head to Miami (where he started) and ask for help (funding) from people (family and friends) he really doesn’t want to ask for help from. The help is greatly appreciated but, as many indie filmmakers can attest, he still doesn’t have everything he needs (a minuscule budget). He receives a dilapidated food truck (used equipment) from his ex-wives’ ex-husband Marvin, played by The Iron Man himself. The truck needs a lot of work (limited means and locations), and he maxes out his credit cards in order to fix it up (oh Clerks, you're amazing ) and start cooking again, with his son and friend John Leguizamo.
With the new food truck, Casper can-- Okay, to hell with the metaphors for a moment…let’s get real. Favreau has his equipment, his means, and his crew, and now he can begin working on his new film. Favreau puts together his new film, opens the gates and screens it to his first audience: the friends that helped him put it together in the first place, and they love it. Putting together a final edit, he takes the film on the road, with his son (whom he dubs the marketing department) tweeting from the road, updates of the film festival tour, to their steadily growing fan base. Every town they stop in, they are met with long lines of movie-goers, frothing at the mouth to get a taste of the new film.
The food truck hits Austin, TX and they serve to the crowd of a small outdoor, live-music venue. Want me to spell it out for you? We have hit the SXSW Film Festival, and have earned the respect they wanted, the success they needed, and everything in life that they are working towards, finally within reach. But, like most film tours, this is the summit. From this point forward, you either bust your ass to stay there, or you go back home to the everyday grind. This becomes a choice he needs to make; eventually deciding to stay the course, and even re-gains the adoration of the very critic who lambasted his lesser efforts.
In possibly the most poignant moment in the film, Casper is speaking to his son who has a moment of not giving his all. Casper pulls him aside, explaining the importance of doing what you love, to the best of your ability.
Everything good that's happened to me in my life, came to me because of this. I may not do everything great in my life, okay? I'm not perfect. I'm not the best husband, I'm sorry if it wasn’t the best father, but I'm good at this and I want to share this with you. I want to teach you what I learned. I get to touch people's lives with what I do and it keeps me going and I love it. I think if you give it a shot you may love it too.
"Chef" quite simply expresses how people, who do what they love, feel inside about their craft. Favreau loves writing, directing and acting, and does all three in this amazing piece of art. He treats his characters with respect, and makes them real. Everyone is funny, engaging, truthful, and (mostly) realistic. You can tell that everyone involved with the film knew what Favreau was trying to say, and was behind him 100%.
Thank you, Jon, for this amazingly beautiful tale of love, film, art and food.
P.S.: Kudos for adding the cop who stops them mid-lunch service, and asks to see their permit. I was in tears laughing..
Check out more of my writings, and podcast at www.mariolikesmovies.com