Make Food Porn, Not Food Propaganda
In Chef, Jon Favreau plays a a critically-acclaimed chef who wants to continue to grow and evolve creatively, while hemmed in by market forces pushing him to keep doing what he’s been doing, no matter how bored and unfulfilled it leaves him — the eternal artist’s dilemma. “Play your hits,” the restaurant owner played by Dustin Hoffman tells him. He sucks it up and abandons his new menu, his passion project, in favor of the old menu he’s sick of and doesn’t really believe in, the one people supposedly expect, the one they demand. Naturally, he gets pilloried by the local food critic (Oliver Platt) for it. “Chef Carl Casper’s recent weight gain can only be explained by the fact that he must be eating all the food that gets sent back to the kitchen,” goes the review, in probably the funniest scene of the movie.
From there, Favreau’s chef (accurately rendered, with the requisite food-related forearm tats) goes home to drown his sorrows in olive oil and starch, cooking up a batch of sizzling onions and garlic, mixed with cheese and spaghetti, finished off with chopped parsley, lovingly twisted to perfection and served up to his waiting hostess/mistress, played by Scarlett Johansson, who’s sitting on his bed, rightly turned on by the whole scene (I actually tried my pasta like this, instead of adding tomatoes, and it was delicious). As a guy who DVRs at least 10 different cooking shows, including MTV’s God-awful Real World with cooking, House of Food, there are few things I like more than watching someone lovingly prepare a plate of food. For me, watching a guy chop up onions and brown them in olive oil is like being wrapped in a blanket and handed a golden retriever puppy – it’s my happy place. Add to that food as a metaphor for the creative process, a garlic scented world of snarky haters, and a soundtrack full of ska, and for a few minutes I wondered if Favreau was filming live from Vince’s Wheelhouse, dead center. It was like being in some Matrix world where a malevolent force knew exactly how to make me feel most comfortable so they could tap my brain and scoop out my stem cells for their reactor machine.
The basic idea behind Chef is “How Jonny Fat Tits Got His Groove Back,” with a food truck playing the proverbial Taye Diggs. He takes a chance, strikes out on his own, and gets to know his neglected son, who comes to work with him on his truck. Simple, but I was fine with that, especially when you throw in John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale as Favreau’s wisecracking kitchen crew, who are great in everything, but have an especially great rapport between the three of them (remember, once upon a time, Jon Favreau built an entire career on understanding dude-group dynamics in Swingers). It’s pretty ridiculous to write yourself into a love triangle between Scarlett Johansson and Sofia Vergara when you look like Jon Favreau (or me, or anybody but Tom Hardy, really), but the fact that his character is a pseudo celebrity chef and Scarlett Johansson is his restaurant hostess makes it believable enough. I’ve worked in a few restaurants, and never was there a time where someone wasn’t banging the hot hostess. If you want to sleep with hot 20-somethings until you’re 45, working in a restaurant is definitely your best bet, short of being famous.
I so wish Chef was just food porn artist wish fulfillment, but Favreau also seems to have an Aaron Sorkin-esque fascination with computers and social media, built on a grandpa-like understanding of this brave new world of ones and zeroes. When Favreau’s son becomes their food truck’s de facto cyber publicist, the film shifts gears from its sweet spot as food porn into a sort of fifth grade book report on social media. Note to aging screenwriters: Twitter is not magic. I could go my entire life without hearing another movie character intone gravely “It went viral.” “Kids be tweetin’” is the new “Women be shoppin’.”
I love food, but even if you don’t drool over the food network or follow celeb chefs like rock stars, there’s something universal about the creation of the perfect plate of food. Food fascination isn’t about name-dropping or celebrities or a British guy calling fat people donkeys, it’s simply about someone taking pride in what they do. We live in a world where the harder it is to explain what the f*ck your job is, the more money you tend to make. Which makes it all the more pleasing to see someone fulfill one of the most basic human needs – eating – while taking the utmost pride in their product. Taking pride in the product over the monetary reward gets me every time (I put love in these reviews, dammit, I promise I could do a lot less work for a lot more clicks).
Not only that, but cooking is a celebration of getting your hands dirty. From “humane” executions and video game drone strikes to meat that only exists covered in plastic for most people and crucial technological processes that only .00001% of the world actually understands, we’re so divorced from the process of things nowadays that it’s beautiful to see something go from farm to table (to borrow a foodie cliché). There’s a fantastic moment in Chef where Favreau and his son are cleaning out their broken down old food truck, and the son, so excited about the venture up until this point, balks at having to clean up a food tray full of moldy, disgusting old food. Favreau yells at him, and it starts their first argument. You can’t make pretty food without getting elbow deep in guts and nastiness from time to time, so hold your nose and grow some balls, little man, this is what it takes to become an adult. As a person who gets livid watching House of Food, seeing full-grown adults who supposedly want to cook steaks for a living get squeamish at the sight of a side of beef, I could not possibly endorse this moment more. F*ck your squeamishness, ostrich! Your cozy bed is a nest of lies! Phew, okay, sorry about that, I have some strong opinions about hash browns.
As much as I love all things food, there’s a reason I never refer to myself as a “foodie,” other than the fact that it’s basically a synonym for “asshole” to a lot of people. To me there’s a clear distinction between food porn and food propaganda. To wallow in the sensual pleasure of creating food – slicing onions, crushing garlic, butchering meat, dredging, braising, carmelizing, tenderizing, emulsifying – that’s food porn. I could jack off to that if my belly had a boner. The part where you talk about famous chefs and restaurants and artisan whatever, the craft cocktail movement and Alice Waters inventing “California Cuisine,” that’s food propaganda. As obnoxious as someone name-dropping their favorite indie bands or spouting buzz terms at their start-up’s investors round table. Oh, you’re an ideation ninja, and Sanjay here is your disruption guru, you say? Please die in a dildo fire.
Chef is mostly about food porn, especially at the beginning, but there are a few times when it crosses the line into bullshit foodie propaganda. I probably could’ve done with the gratuitous product placement for Cafe Du Monde and its world famous beignets if there wasn’t also a scene where everyone jizzes their pants about Franklin’s BBQ in Austin, Texas, which anyone in the entire world who has been to Austin, Texas is more than familiar with. Chef would’ve been a lot more tolerable if they’d dropped one of them or fictionalized both. That’s not a celebration of the process, it’s shitty name-dropping. It’s the difference between filming Faye Reagan screwing and filming five guys standing around talking about her puffy nipples. Which do you want to watch?
Despite its techno-rube qualities, Chef admirably avoids most of the hoary bloggers-as-haters clichés, painting Oliver Platt’s food critic fairly accurately as an articulate enthusiast of the shit he’s writing about, rather than the usual embittered failure who hates, because jealousy is all he knows. And when Favreau’s Chef Carl gets pissed, most of the anger comes from knowing the critic is right. You don’t get angry at a critic who gets it wrong, you get angry at the one who gives voice to your own self-doubt.
All in all, Chef is a bit of a mixed bag (flavor profile is a bit muddled, could use a little zest to brighten it up), but god damn is it delicious to see Jon Favreau back doing a passion project. Movies, like food, are always better when it feels like the person making them is excited to serve them to you.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.