In culinary terms, “Chef” is comfort food. It’s not great art, but it’s wholly, deeply satisfying, down to the soul.
The feel-good story of a Los Angeles chef who opens a food truck after he loses his job in a high-end restaurant marks the return of writer, director and star Jon Favreau to the kind of character-driven indie he was once known for. Since 2008, the writer and co-star of “Swingers,” his 1996 breakout, has been better known as the director of the first two “Iron Man” movies (also “Cowboys and Aliens,” but who’s counting?). With “Chef,” it’s great to have the old guy back.
In a somewhat meta story line, Favreau plays Carl Casper, a once-celebrated kitchen hotshot who is trapped in a restaurant bankrolled by a guy (Dustin Hoffman) who won’t let Carl cook what he likes. The place is popular, but safe. After 10 years, Carl is miserable, despite an ex-wife who still kind of digs him (Sofia Vergara), a girlfriend who clearly does (Scarlett Johansson) and a son who adores him (Emjay Anthony).
Things come to a head when a food critic and early champion of Carl’s (Oliver Platt) writes a scathing review. Carl’s subsequent attempt to win the critic back with a more daring menu falls afoul of his boss, and our hero suddenly finds himself out of a job. A run-down food truck and a hankering to make Cuban sandwiches suddenly offer an opportunity for redemption.
The food shots in this movie are absolutely incredible. Sequences filmed on the truck — which Carl picks up in Miami and drives back to L.A. via New Orleans, Austin and other foodie meccas — are the kind of culinary porn that you see on the Food Network. One scene featuring the brisket at Austin’s Franklin Barbecue focuses so sensuously on a knife cutting through the char of the meat to its tender pink center that I almost had to look away in embarrassment.
Even a short bit in which Carl makes his son, Percy, a grilled-cheese sandwich — gently moving it around on the butter-slathered grill with his hand — is filmed like a boudoir scene. (Stay for the closing credits, where you can watch a food consultant teach Favreau how to find the grill’s slippery “hot spot.”)
But the movie is about more than food. The real, more involving story — even beyond the one about Carl getting his mojo back — is about the relationship between a boy and his father. As the film opens, we see that Carl, a workaholic, hasn’t always been the best dad. But over the course of a month together on the food truck, where Carl has somewhat reluctantly agreed to let Percy help him during summer vacation, their partnership evolves from a half-baked notion into a beautiful thing.
“Chef” is filled with rich, spicy flavors, from its soundtrack of Cuban and New Orleans jazz and Texas blues to the colorful supporting cast, which includes funny cameos by Robert Downey Jr. and Amy Sedaris. John Leguizamo is particularly good as Carl’s profane, motormouthed assistant, Martin. Everyone in this movie feels like they have a life outside the edges of the screen. And the humor, which features running gags about the explosive growth of food-centric social media, is wryly observant.
There’s nothing terribly profound about “Chef.” But its message — that relationships, like cooking, take a hands-on approach — is a sweet and sustaining one.
★ ★ ★ ½
R. At area theaters. Contains obscenity and sexual humor. 115 minutes.