Swapping the big-budget, high-stakes action of Iron Man for this small-scale foodie tale, Jon Favreau’s tasty indie mimics the trajectory of his latest, defiantly un-super hero. Grumpy LA chef Carl (Favreau) gets sacked from his smart restaurant for haranguing a food critic (Oliver Platt) whose review spotted that he’s lost his culinary mojo.
Favreau’s direction relishes the macho bustle of the kitchen – Carl is a culinary artist, creating a pasta dish for his waitress lover (a distracting cameo from Scarlett Johansson) with an ardent intensity that’s the closest the film gets to a sex scene. But this obsession with the tasks and textures of cooking makes Chef a slow starter dramatically.
Once Carl has sourced a food-truck, the unlikely symbol of his creative freedom, we swerve smoothly into chatty fast-food, road-movie mode. The only edge here is on Carl’s knives. Revelling in father-son grill-bonding with the neglected Percy (Emjay Anthony), and top bants with John Leguizamo’s Cubano-sandwich wizard Martin, the movie cruises along enjoyably in second gear.
Powered by Favreau’s gruff wit and ex-wife Inez’s (Sofía Vergara) mugging, it is plenty engaging. But the camera drools compulsively over New Orleans beignets or sticky Texas barbecue. This flagrant food fetish combines with the film’s fixation on Tweeting and social media montages to slow things to a crawl.
Not that we care, because Favreau’s got his groove going, especially in a deliciously deadpan joust with Robert Downey Jr.’s nervy benefactor. Chef isn’t in Swingers’ league, but it’s a funny, charming and personal film.
Favreau’s mid-life-crisis culinary comedy could do with less ham and cheese and beefier action. But it’s a flavoursome slab of comic comfort-food that works up a viewer appetite.