I was unable to attend the premiere screening of Chef at SXSW this year, much to my chagrin, so I’ve spent the ensuing two months on tenterhooks, waiting for it to open here in Austin (I was all set to see it when it opened in limited release on May 9, even going so far as to book a babysitter, but it didn’t open here until the 23rd). So, once it opened here on the weekend, I got my butt in a seat as soon as was humanly possible. On the whole, I thought it was a very pleasant movie, if not a little formulaic. While many folks have mentioned the visceral delight of the food porn on display (which, frankly, I found a little distracting — Jon Favreau’s character makes this enormous, gorgeous meal alone in his apartment for no one, which made little sense to me. But it sure was pretty to look at!), I saw some other things going on as well, points of interest that I don’t think should be overlooked even though this film 100% capitalizes on this current food-obsessed cultural moment. There are very few things I find more delightful as a consumer of culture than watching Jon Favreau’s semi-autobiographical characters tear themselves down into a broken, ego-bruised mass, usually via an epic meltdown, then slowly rebuild from a place of abashed humility. The first time I saw Swingers, I couldn’t sit still while watching the answering machine scene; it made me so anxious, I was pacing back and forth in front of the TV saying, “no, no, please god no, don’t do that, just stop for the love of … he’s not going to stop, is he?” There is a similar meltdown in Chef, only his shame isn’t private — it’s viral. It’s through this mechanism that Favreau communicates his particular brand of vulnerability, one that provides a counterpoint to all the puffed-up masculinity on display in the rest of his celluloid life.
There’s no small amount of dick swinging in Chef, and the showdown between Carl Casper, whom we are to understand is a creative culinary mastermind, and Dustin Hoffman’s irascible, inflexible restaurant owner is but one particularly aggressive example. Carl’s banter with his loyal sous chef Martin (John Leguizamo) is simultaneously macho, semi-filthy, and respectful (the chemistry between the two actors is as refreshing as a watermelon paleta on a blazing summer’s day), and together they do the work of teaching Carl’s son, Percy (Emjay Anthony) the intricacies of being a man, from applying cornstarch to one’s “huevos” in humid climes to learning the hierarchy of the working world to the profound responsibility imbued in a chef’s knife. And it’s that male-centric view that troubles this film. Typical of most Hollywood movies these days (I guess technically this is an indie? But it’s got Robert Downey Jr and Scarlett Johansson in it, so it can’t be THAT indie), there are women present, but only in relationship to the man and his needs. Por ejemplo, Johansson’s sultry sommelier serves only to warn Carl that the boss is coming, provide calm encouragement to spread his wings and fly, and moan lasciviously over a mouthful of pasta he’s prepared for her while she lounges on his bed. Inez (Sofia Vergara), Carl’s ex-wife, offers friendly support, encouragement, as well as gentle chiding when Carl lapses in his fatherly duties. As likable as Inez is, she’s something of a cypher. Why does she have that amazing house with the huge staff? Why does she have a publicist (brilliantly and skeevily played by Amy Sedaris)? We know nothing about Inez other than that she adores her son, clearly still cares deeply for Carl, and has a famous Cuban musician for a father. Put another way, the three women in the film are essentially there to reflect Carl back to himself in one way or another. (For a brilliant and devastating takedown of The Amazing Spider Man 2 along these same lines, check out Amanda Ann Klein’s “The Postfeminist Gift of Gwen Stacy [SPOILERS!!!])
In addition to the film’s “woman problem,” Favreau is blind to his economic privilege in telling this story. Despite the fact that Carl kvetches that he’s broke, he magically receives an apparently no-strings-attached truck from a Miami connection of Inez’s (she’s so useful like that!), then proceeds to max out his credit cards outfitting that truck to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, not to mention secure the appropriate permitting in each city they visit on their drive from Miami to LA, have startup cash to purchase ingredients (and beer and cigars). Yes, it’s a feel-good story about implementing your own creative vision in the interest of living your best life, but it was extremely difficult for me to suspend my disbelief when it came to Carl’s overnight success as a food truck operator.
But there are things that I appreciate in the film, too. People of color in the movie aren’t depicted as comic relief, they are the main characters. And I think that’s particularly interesting considering the dominant discourse of celebrity chefs, which tends to privilege white males. I like that Cuban food is the link to Carl’s identity and reignites his creative fire without any anxiety about being Other, and I also like that in each city he visits, he effortlessly crafts a hybrid sandwich reflecting that city’s culture (po’boys and beignets in New Orleans, brisket sliders in Austin). He embraces an easy fusion, a subtle argument for food as the vehicle for inclusiveness.
I also loved the role of social media in the film, particularly as it concerns Percy. It’s through his son that Carl discovers the possibility of connection — and the destructive power — of social networking. Percy, a digital native, negotiates the truck’s viral marketing and is instrumental in his father’s success. It’s also the boy’s technological savvy that helps Carl connect to his son — just as Carl teaches Percy how to be a man, Percy teaches Carl how to get out of his head and be of the world. While I am uncomfortable with the idea of my own son, who is close to Percy’s age, being so comfortable with how to talk to people on the internet (I require my son to turn off the chat function when he plays Minecraft, and he will not have an email address, Twitter account, Instagram, Facebook, etc until he’s a few years older), Chef makes the argument that parents should learn to stop worrying and love the bomb, so to speak, because on the other side of that worry is true connection.
Ultimately, Chef is an enjoyable narrative of a man’s quest to rediscover his creative voice. The theme of pursuing your own vision in service to a professional endeavor resonated with me deeply. I laughed frequently and heartily, and drooled obediently on cue at the food porn scenes. I just wish that the women had been more than just set dressing while the men were busy learning from one another.