Carl Casper (writer-director Jon Favreau) is stuck in a rut. Ten years into his plum post at a high-end LA restaurant, the onetime Miami food wunderkind has taken to passionless, crowd-baiting cooking, hamstrung by his seat-filling boss (Dustin Hoffman). When a big-time critic (Oliver Platt) brutally calls out his complacency, Carl’s angry reaction goes viral online, and the disgraced chef is told to pack his knives and go.
At the cajoling of his ex-wife Inez (a subdued Sofía Vergara), Carl escapes his newfound internet notoriety, returning to Miami and his long-neglected young son, Percy (Emjay Anthony). Reinvigorated by his old stomping grounds, he ditches his fine-dining chef’s whites for a junky Cubano food truck, embarking on a road to domestic and culinary redemption.
In some ways, this is Favreau’s own story: since writing and starring in 1996 indie critics’ darling ‘Swingers’, he’s been wading in the franchise pool (mainly the ‘Iron Man’ movies), not always to great acclaim. ‘Chef’ marks a return to his home-cooked roots, albeit with the perks of his big-budget finesse. The non-stop kitchen bustle has the top-shelf slickness of an action-movie sequence, and the high-calorie food porn is as gratuitous as a car chase.
A meandering middle and sticky-sweet third act can be overlooked if only for the savviness with which Favreau portrays the food world. He nails the locker-room camaraderie between Carl and his line lieutenants (a game John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale), the local colour of gastro meccas like New Orleans and Austin and the make-or-break role of social media in the restaurant biz. There’s family-friendly fluff here, sure, but this dish has considerable bite.