Chef is a movie written and directed by Jon Favreau, who also stars as chef Carl Casper, a superbly talented culinary maestro who is boiling over with the frustrations of working in a restaurant that underutilizes his talents. On its surface it’s a feel-good movie about redemption, both professional and personal. But Chef is much more than what initially meets the eye: it’s a look at the relentless, often unforgiving, forces of both creativity and technology.
Chef looks at how the use of social media can either grow or cripple a business, not to mention personal relationships. Taught only the basics of social media by his ten-year-old tech-whiz son, chef Casper fails to grasp that in some circumstances it’s a loaded gun ready to misfire. When the chef receives a withering review on a food critic’s blog he impulsively lashes out on Twitter, not understanding that his words aren’t a one-to-one exchange, but are instantly very public. This social media misstep results in a meltdown when he confronts the critic in his restaurant; the rant finds its way to YouTube in seconds flat. Chef Casper immediately loses his job along with any job prospects and, of course, his self-respect. He ultimately finds his salvation on a food truck, a venue he once considered to be worse than death. Social media not only drives the plot, it captures today’s culture as the story travels from Los Angeles to New Orleans and Austin, Texas, then back to LA.
As it conveys the rich artistry of ethnic and regional foods, the film shows us how social media, used to its best advantage, can change lives and fortunes. Much to his surprise, the same social media phenomenon that caused chef Casper’s demise results in a passionate following for his rolling restaurant, as his food truck is followed around the country via Twitter, Vine, Facebook, and Instagram. An added plotline is his reconnection with his estranged son, Percy, who happens to be the social media savant behind his father’s career’s resurgence, and his ex-wife, Inez.
A talented assortment of supporting actors make the whole adventure wildly entertaining: Emjay Anthony plays Percy, his ten-year-old son; Dustin Hoffman shines as the conservative, unimaginative restaurant owner who fires chef Casper; Sofia Vergara, toning down her boisterous Modern Family personality while leaving her charismatic beauty intact, is his ex-wife and best friend, Inez; Scarlett Johansson plays Molly, a waitress who idolizes the chef for his talent and outsized personality; Oliver Platt plays the self-important food critic; and Robert Downey Jr. gives a hysterical cameo as the ex-wife’s ex-husband.
You may remember Favreau as an indie auteur, going back to his breakout debut with Swingers, a comedy-drama about the lives of single unemployed actors who are down and out in Hollywood. While Swingers was set in the distant past (1996!), there’s a common thread running through both of these Favreau films. “I wanted to tell a story that captured where we are in time and the language we use,” Favreau told Mashable during the New York premier of Chef. “In Swingers we used answering machines to convey that—with Chef it made sense
While the 1998 technocomedy You’ve Got Mail was a product placement vehicle for AOL, Favreau’s exploration of technology is product placement for Twitter, ingeniously showing tweets as sky-blue clouds that quickly dissolve into the ether. The email correspondence at the center of You’ve Got Mail, quaint as it may seem now, was a pioneering forerunner of Chef and its real-time use of multiplatform communication tools. Chef positions social media not only as a broad social function but as a complex medium that can be deeply personal. As social media blasts Casper’s fame around the world, on a one-to-one level it ultimately reconnects him with his son and ex-wife.
It’s easy to lose the larger implications of this film’s message regarding our social media-driven culture and the impact it has on human interactions. Among the beautifully lavish food shots that convey chef Casper’s talented passion for cross-cultural blends of culinary staples, and the feel-good qualities of the movie that revolve around redeemed love and respect, are some profound messages. Ultimately, Chef is a film about multidimensional creativity that spans generations.
As The Atlantic critic Noah Gittel points out, Chef is “finally” a movie that portrays social media as something other than evil. “Hollywood typically depicts users of social media as tragic or as punch lines,” Gittel writes. “Think of Catfish or The Social Network, both of which portray characters who turn to Facebook to compensate for their own insecurities.”
The movie isn’t perfectly authentic: Favreau takes his share of poetic license in the film. His physical bulk, which reflects his culinary overindulgences arguably makes his pairing with the lovely Sophia Vergara and the sultry Scarlett Johansson unlikely—but hey, he wrote the script. However, his character’s passion for artistry and culinary craftsmanship, and his son’s equally impressive talent for understanding the interconnected world, seem completely authentic and believable. Chef Casper aches to be loved for his creativity as much as he loves creating; his young son has a talent for grasping the ethereal concept of connectivity in a diverse and complicated world, but he also aches for a deeply personal connection with the father who left him.
Chef is an exploration of the creative process, be it in cooking or creating content for social media. His boss shouts, “Be an artist on your own time!” before he fires chef Casper, demonstrating the most basic misunderstanding of why great chefs do what they do. The realization that we don’t really know where creativity comes from (the brain? the heart? the soul?) adds an undercurrent of wonder to Chef. Since creativity is a mystery to us, it can be unexpected and fun – as the chef chops and dices with dizzying speed, you shake your head and wonder how does he do that? Psychologists generally regard creativity, in its most basic sense, as the bridges your brain builds between unrelated parts—an ability to see patterns where others don’t. A great chef puts disparate ingredients together with an innate sense that the result will be great; good food always starts with an idea. Social media, as understood by a child in this case, is making choices about content and context and hoping for an explosion of meaningful but often random connections. Sometimes it’s luck—a mustachioed cat gains a million followers—but there’s a science behind the art of social media.
There’s a childlike quality to chef Casper’s naïve handling of social media’s tools and processes. When he lashes out at his critic, he shouts that the critic’s words “hurt”; the self-inflicted hurt that is a result of his careless misuse of social media—using his own words and actions—is a richly symbolic and ironic juxtaposition. But there’s an offsetting maturity to his son’s understanding of how the world works when we truly connect with each other on a level that leverages common interests—in this case, the cultural attraction of food and the hero worship of those who create it with flair. There’s nothing particularly precocious about Percy, but if you’ve ever wondered if Salinger intended Holden Caufield to be a precocious genius or simply a clear-eyed kid who could cut through society’s baffling conventions much better and faster than those living in the adult world, then this is a movie for you. Chef Casper’s son suffers through some of the alienation and loneliness that Holden experienced, but he has a weapon tha
t Holden couldn’t imagine: social media.
Charlotte Allen, a guest blogger for the L.A. Times, writes “Chef is a movie about a man becoming a man by acting like a man. It’s a thoroughly sexist movie, in the very best sense of the word.” The word chef comes from the Latin word caput, which means head. So does the Spanish word jefe, the name of chef Casper’s food truck. “Casper becomes the head of his restaurant and the head of his family,” Allen writes. “That’s what being a real man is all about.”
Chef does not promote a self-indulgent preoccupation with fame; Chef Casper’s redemption comes through loving what he does and being who he was meant to be. Social media enables that metamorphosis. Chef can be viewed as a fascinating exploration of the coexistence of personal fulfillment and entrepreneurial connectivity, all the while within the context of the larger culture in the age of social media. That it makes you laugh and leave the theater a happier person is a bonus.
What did you think of the film?