The more seasoned of the two skillet wizards who become friends and co-workers in “Le Chef” is known for meals that are well-crafted but old-fashioned. That also describes this predictable French comedy, which is amiable but far from piquant. While Alexandre Lagarde (Jean Reno) researches new ideas for his spring menu, director and co-writer Daniel Cohen serves up the cinematic equivalent of beef bourguignon.
Alexandre, who runs a three-star Paris restaurant named for himself, has a problem. The critics want the gimmicky new style known as molecular gastronomy, with ordinary foodstuffs tricked into bizarre forms. So does his callow young boss (Julien Boisselier), who inherited his father’s control of the restaurant, Cargo Lagarde.
For Jacky Bonnot (Michael Youn), a Lagarde devotee, the challenge seems to be simpler. All he needs to do is hold a job — any job — to support girlfriend Beatrice (Raphaelle Agogue) and their imminent baby. But Jacky, who has only ever worked at diner-style eateries, can’t help turning out haute cuisine, and is inevitably fired. Even when he takes a gig as a painter at an upscale senior citizens home, he is drawn to tinker in the kitchen.
Inevitably, Alexandre visits a friend at the facility, where he discovers that Jacky has prepared a fine version of one of the three-star chef’s recipes. So Alexandre offers Jacky an unpaid tryout at Cargo Lagarde, which the younger man can hardly refuse. But neither can Jacky tell Beatrice that he just quit a paying job for a salary-free internship.
After evoking only warm smiles in its first half, “Le Chef” ultimately veers into farce. Jacky invites an eccentric Spanish chef to demonstrate his techniques, using liquid nitrogen and ducks he poached from a Paris park. (This infamy returns in a throwaway after-the-credits gag.) Then Alexandre and Jacky dress as a cartoonish Japanese couple — a samurai and a geisha — for a covert meal at a rival’s absurdly trendy restaurant. Even viewers who are amused by national stereotypes will likely squirm through this clumsy scene.
The film’s payoff is about as novel as a scoop of lemon sorbet. Alexandre’s style of cooking, lightly refreshed, is sure to triumph in the end. But while the movie spends most of its time in the kitchen, its moral is that chefs should budget more hours for home. Alexandre comes to realize he’s neglected his college-age daughter (Salomé Stévenin), and Jacky must make things right with Beatrice.
And if that means scurrying to the maternity ward with an engagement ring — well, it’s not just the food in “Le Chef” that upholds tradition.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
PG-13. At the Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market. Contains obscenity. In French, Spanish, Japanese and English with subtitles. 84 minutes.