Chef (2014), written and directed by Jon Favreau, is one of those charming little films that is virtually destined—predestined, one might say—to get marginalized in a Hollywood industry characterized by big-budgeted, effects-laden, and Oscar-grubbing motion pictures—some of which are very fine films in their own right. On one level, that Chef didn’t shatter box-office records or garner widespread critical or popular acclaim makes sense; it’s a family film but isn’t exactly “family friendly,” and it is thus a difficult film to sell to studios and a broad audience. The appeal—or at least an appeal—of Chef, however, is that Favreau’s enthusiasm permeates the film so that it is almost palpable. Indeed, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he speaks about the film as a sort of passion project:
[T]his was me seizing an opportunity to do something that was completely satisfying for me artistically, and I feel very lucky to have done it. It was really exciting to go back to my roots in independent film and face the challenges that I used to face with time and money – but not having to face the challenges of making a case for my creative vision in a roomful of people who all might have different opinions.
After directing the first two Iron Men movies—Marvel isn’t known for giving directors complete freedom—and several television gigs, he wanted to undertake in Chef a project of personal significance. Given the above quote, it is both unsurprising and deeply interesting that the film itself reflects Favreaus’s desire to express himself as an independent filmmaker, free from the pressures of the studio system; for although Chef is an amalgamation of the road movie and father-son bonding flick, it is ultimately a work that bears the mark of its creator.
Chef Carl Casper (played by Favreau himself) labors away in a restaurant kitchen as the film begins; and, as one expects in a film named Chef, seductive closeups of food, in all of its pre-cooked, cooked, and delicately prepared glory punctuate the opening scenes (and the entire film). Casper prepares a new menu that is bound to impress the famous food critic who will be visiting that night; but the restaurant owner, Riva (Dustin Hoffman), puts an end to the creativity, telling Casper that he should cook the menu that has kept them afloat and successful for years. “Look, if you bought Stones tickets and Jagger didn’t play Satisfaction, how would you feel? Would you be happy?” Riva asks rhetorically. This time, however, Casper has had enough; and after an episode of public humiliation, he leaves his job at the restaurant, opens his own food truck, and attempts to repair his broken relationship with his son and ex-wife.
The similarities between chef Carl Casper and Favreau are not difficult to discern: both men have grown weary of the pressures to conform to the strict standards of their respective industries and seek another creative outlet. The restaurant, which is a stand-in for the Hollywood studio system, ultimately exists to make a profit; and it therefore ultimately makes certain demands on its chefs—demands that, as Favreau explains, can be burdensome:
I was really excited to do something that was not part of a big committee and a big collaboration. It’s [Chef] about a character in transition in life, a person trying to find his voice and reconnect with his passions. To me that’s the story of many people that I know that are my age.
Ultimately, Chef is less an indictment of the Hollywood system and more of an impassioned ode to creativity wherein Favreau reminds us that, as goes the oft-quoted adage, art reflects life. He has crafted a film the way a master chef prepares a special dish: with love, care, and attention to detail. Chef is very much made in the likeness of its creator, and it offers an interesting meditation on why we value creativity. It testifies that, as human beings, we create things in our image—that bear our mark and our name—precisely because we are created in the image of God.
[Chef is currently streaming on Netflix.]
- http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/sxsw-jon-favreau-says-chef–686667 ↩
- It is not a good idea to watch this film on an empty stomach. ↩