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A Review of "Chef" (2014) / Bitching About Food Critics

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Chef is a consistently heartwarming and mostly funny movie about cooking, family, criticism, and dreams.  It tackles quite a few topics and actually manages to have interesting things to say about all of them, even if it does resort to some predictable tricks along the way.  My biggest complaint is that the last few minutes are weak and almost subvert much of what came before them, but that's not nearly enough of a reason not to watch.

My Rating: 4.5 / 5

The Part Where I Summarize the Plot and Give a Brief Review

Jon Favreau, who also wrote and directed, plays Carl Casper, an emotionally charged and talented chef.  He's divorced and has a barely-existent relationship with his son, but generally feels complacent with his life.  Unfortunately, one day he has a run-in with a notorious food critic, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) who slams him for being uncreative and generally not worth anybody's time.

Casper, knowing that his food is cooked well and that his staff works hard, reacts poorly.  He inadvertently begins a flame war on Twitter which then escalates to him quitting his job and getting into a blow-out screaming fit that gets caught on video and put onto Youtube.  Jobless and with only scraps of his dignity left, Casper goes on a trip with his ex-wife and kid to Miami.

There, he gets a food truck and decides to re-invent his life as a traveling Cubano salesman.  His son, wanting to reconnect, joins him on a road trip to Los Angeles.  Along the way, they learn about life, cooking, family, and a bunch of other fuzzy stuff.  He also gets a shitload of publicity along the way and becomes crazy successful again.

Chef is a moving film.  Its characters are realistic and sympathetic, and the conflicts before them are immediately tangible.  I love Favreau's approach to his cast; everybody feels three-dimensional, even if they are just a minor background character.

Look at Bobby Cannavale, for example.  He's just one of the miscellaneous background cooks at the restaurant and a friend of Casper's.  He comes across as kind of a goof and a bit of a blue collar slob.  He's rough around the edges, but he's not really all that tough, either; when Casper quits and Cannavele's character is offered an immediate promotion, he struggles with how to handle it and ultimately stays on at the restaurant.  Yet despite this apparent "betrayal," he remains on good terms with Casper when they hang out again a little bit later.  All of this nuance and interaction and depth comes across over a grand total of maybe seven minutes of screen time, if that.

The interpersonal relationships are all very real and I love it.  So many movies heighten tension and emotions between characters to a point that feels overblown, but that often rings false.  Think about how you feel about your boss(es).  There's a good chance that you have problems with them, right?  Like they drive you crazy with micro-management or seemingly capricious business decisions?  But you also admire them, right?  Because they're competent and work hard at what they do?  And sometimes they're actually kind of fun to hang out with?

In most movies, your relationship with your boss would be reduced to a Scrooge / Cratchit kind of deal.  But in reality, you know that's not fair.

That's where Chef works best.  Favreau respects the fact that everybody in his movie is a human being with good days and bad days, strengths and weaknesses.  It's incredibly refreshing to see a movie that's just full of people being actual human beings.

Until the ending, anyway.

The Part Where I Complain About the Ending

The worst part of the movie happens right after Michel re-enters the picture.  There's just so much of the movie that feels like it's either being revisited unnecessarily or actively being undone.

First of all, every character and thematic arc has been wrapped up by this point.  Casper and his son have reconnected.  Casper has his dignity and passion back.  His wife no longer worries about him. When the camera pans over a massive line of people waiting at his food truck outside of a nightclub and you see Casper and his family working hard, you could just play a fun song and have the credits roll - all is right with the world.

But then they bring Oliver Platt back.  (Don't get me wrong - I love Platt in everything I see him in.  It's just that his character doesn't need to be here.)  He tells Casper that he loves the new food, and now he wants to hire Casper as the head chef of a new restaurant.  Cut to Casper at his new gig, celebrating his re-marriage to his ex-ex-wife.  Roll credits.

It's a contrived twist that we already saw in another movie about food, but that by itself is actually not a problem.  The real weak spot is that Casper no longer needs Michel's respect, opinion, or money.  His whole arc is specifically about him learning not to desire any of that stuff.  He has found dignity and peace through his own capabilities and self worth.  By having him accept Michel's offer, it gives a mixed message.  The happy ending isn't that Casper makes up with a nemesis and gets a glamorous job, it's that he loves what he does and he has control of his own fate.

So what happens when Casper is unhappy working for somebody else again?  What happens when he gets tired of having to report to Michel and some other asshole complains about his food?

More importantly, that ending screws with all the family dynamics.  He gets remarried to his wife, which is again a contrivance that doesn't need to be there.  The happy ending for Casper is that he learns that he doesn't have to have his wife anymore.  He can get over the fact that they are separated and that she has had a romantic life outside of him.

Worst of all, though, what happens to his son?  The most important story arc in the movie is Casper's rebuilding of that relationship.  They start out as virtual strangers, sharing almost nothing in common.  But then they connect and bond in the food truck.  His son fears that they will lose that connection once summer vacation ends and he has to go back to school, and the big climactic moment happens when Casper realizes just what that truck means and offers to have his son work on weekends and evenings.  It's this big tearjerker moment where dad and son are going to keep having their special moments together.

But all that's over once Casper starts working for Michel.  You can't employ a ten year-old as a line cook at a restaurant like that.  And unless Michel is a really lax businessman, Casper is going to fall face-first back into that challenge of balancing life and work, which is the thing that fucked up his familial relationships in the first place.

I'm not saying that the ending couldn't work.  Just that I need to see more than a 90-second montage of Casper dancing at his wedding.  It's like if you made a movie about a rogue cop who wipes out a gang of crack-dealing baddies who all wear matching purple top hats, and then the last bit of the movie is a scene of the cop getting an award while a bunch of weirdos wearing matching red top hats gather in the background.  Maybe they're not going to deal crack, but given what we saw happen in the last two hours, shouldn't we feel a little concerned?

Anyway.  It's not enough of a black mark to ruin what is otherwise an excellent film, so I'm not going to gripe too much more about that.  Instead, I've got a different bone to pick.  Let's talk about food criticism for a few minutes.

The Part Where I Get All Snotty and Self-Righteous While Bitching About Food Critics

I gotta make a confession.  It's probably going to sound hypocritical coming from somebody who dabbles in film criticism on the Internet, but I have to be honest:  I don't respect food criticism.  Like, at all.

I have to be clear here.  I'm not talking about criticism on the level of, "Oh, this was overcooked and didn't taste very good."  That's a fair point.  Hell, that's not even criticism - that's just honesty.  If something is actually cooked poorly, then by all means you should call it out.  And I'm not talking about criticism like, "I really hate blueberries."  That's just a preference.   And I'm not talking about things like, "The waiter was rude and took forever," because that's a service issue, and I'm not talking about stuff like, "The table was dirty and the building stank," because that's a restaurant issue.

I'm specifically talking about the kind of criticism that was presented in Chef.  The kind of criticism where somebody will eat a meal that is cooked properly and tastes fine, but then they decide to start assigning all kinds of bullshit "artistic" qualities to it.  The kind of criticism where you hear people say things like, "A spurious dish with a hint of devilish anti-establishment zeal," or maybe, "A creatively bankrupt meal that a pseudo-artisan vomited onto my plate."  This kind of shit drives me up the wall.

It's one thing to criticize art.  You can explore things like themes, emotions, cultures, politics, and all that other fun stuff and see how they interplay with creative expression.  But at the end of the day, you don't need art to survive.  And I know that in a metaphorical sense, sure, art is a basic necessity of human life, but in the actual, physical, Maslow's Hierarchy sense, art is not essential.  It's a thing we are able to appreciate and discuss only because we've got full stomachs and clean water and shelter.

But food?  You need food.  It's kinda hard to live without it.  You might say it's impossible.  To turn your nose up at something that's a fundamental building block of life because of "creative" reasons is... well, it's just stupid.

You realize that not everybody in the world has access to food, right?  You do realize that hunger is one of the biggest problems plaguing third world nations?  And I really, really hope you also realize that the poverty that plagues those nations is, both directly and indirectly, the result of nations like ours consuming of all their resources and/or exploiting them for manual labor?  So... people in Brazil die to farm and export life-giving produce to America just so you can take a bite, spit it out of your vapid, fat fucking mouth and whine, "Yuck, who cooked this, Rachael Ray?"

How spoiled and childish do you have to be to give a one-star review to a cheeseburger just because it was "uninspired?"  Why do you eat?

But it's more than that.  Food criticism is inherently prejudiced against the poor.  Everybody has virtually equal access to art of all types - a movie ticket to Boyhood costs the same as a ticket to Taken 3, regardless of how you might feel about those movies.  You can go to a library and check out the Twilight series and the Lord of the Rings series and the entire works of Shakespeare and a copy of the Bible all at the same time.

But you know what you can't do?  You can't go into a Michelin-starred steakhouse with four bucks and buy dinner.  If you want to eat off of those four bucks, you either go to the grocery store and make some incredibly plain sandwiches on your own, or you go to McDonald's.

So when some asshole gets all high and mighty with his snobby, dick-shaped Food Critic pen and jerks out a review that says, "McDonald's is ruining America" and attributes moral, physical, artistic, and intellectual degradation to the people who eat there, I just have no respect for him on any level whatsoever.  I can't give that to somebody who is so far removed from day-to-day reality.  You're either a young shit - which means you haven't done enough to earn any respect yet - or you're a fucking idiot, in which case you don't deserve it.

Critics cannot write criticism for the 2% of the population that has the luxury to elevate basic human needs into glamorous forms of decadent entertainment.  Your opinion as a published critic will affect all of us, and it's a terrible detriment to the other 98% who might lose respect, business, or career prospects simply because you're bored.  Boo-hoo, you little bitch.  Go work in a soup kitchen and call me when you've got half a soul again.

Where You Can Watch

You're still with me after that little rant?  Alright, well, go cleanse your palate at Netflix, where you can stream Chef right now.