Now that the internet has reached what appears to be a peak annoyance-saturation moment of Food People and their barf-making cult of superior eating, it was clearly time for a narrative feature about a middle-aged, former maverick chef facing down his uncertain future by getting a food truck, learning to hashtag and maximizing his online brand. The good news: if it were a recipe its ratio of sweet to sour would be 4:1 and that is the last reference this review will make to eating and/or throwing up.
Writer-director Jon Favreau is Carl, a chef bucking at the constraints of pleasing the crowd and battling his bottom line–minded boss (Dustin Hoffman). A used-to-be bright young thing, Carl’s trapped in a job he hates for the sake of making a living. His ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) wants him to take out a loan for a food truck, his young son Percy (a fresh, natural Emjay Anthony, unafflicted by child actorisms) simply wants more quality Dad-time, and the local food critic (Oliver Platt) wants him to fulfill his early promise.
Guilt over his son, hurt feelings from a bad review and resistance to taking an economic and professional chance on the trending truck scenario give way to a road trip with his assistant (John Leguizamo) and Percy as they try to make the truck into something real.
But “real” in a film ostensibly committed to that quality can be as difficult to pull off as opening an actual food truck. The latter’s a phenomenon that can be attributed, at least in part, to the downsizing of American life, a symptom of economic desperation like Airbnb, the explosion of unpaid internships and contract labor. And while Chef doesn’t deny those truths, it’s got heartwarmth to prioritize, so glossing over the constant hustle of building a likeable, relevant brand by handing it over to Percy is the way through; it leaves the adults to gloss over other aspects of working in food. (Carl hasn’t absorbed any Spanish from his ex-wife and years of working with Latino kitchen staff? No female employees besides the hostess (Scarlett Johannsson)? Brand new trucks scare up block-long lines just because of a few Tweets and Instagram pics? NOPE.)
Chef could have stumbled much harder over these troubles. But it keeps chugging by the power of its own shaggy friendliness. Favreau’s got a light touch with his actors and each frame is shot through with a sunny warmth, the groovy opposite of even one bulletproof digital Iron Man image. If it dances around deeper trouble than it dares to touch, its desire to lovingly showcase sandwich preparation and to inspire associations with wholeness and well-being make up for that. The effect is that of a motivational speaker selling you on how to make a next thing to do with yourself when you don’t know what that thing is. You may not be able to replicate it in your own life but it feels nice going down.