Food culture sometimes feels like New Orleans' private domain, but in truth it thrives across the country in everything from increased demand for locally sourced ingredients to creative food-truck cuisine. It was only a matter of time until someone made a film that got to the heart of today's culinary landscape. Writer, director and star Jon Favreau's Chef is a hopelessly old-fashioned movie devoted to celebrating the new culture of food — especially visionaries who manage to elevate kitchen craft to high art. It's no surprise that New Orleans hovers over the film like a fog, including a nicely shot opening kitchen-prep montage cut to the rhythms of The Wild Magnolias' "Brother John is Gone/Herc-Jolly-John." Chef is the rare feel-good movie that actually makes you feel good, and one that should easily earn cult status in New Orleans and other food-centric locales.
Favreau stars as Carl Casper, a once-revered chef who's stuck churning out safe but popular fare at a highly successful Los Angeles restaurant. An inadvertently public altercation with a food blogger leads to Miami and a fresh start with a food truck. A road trip ensues as he returns to California with stops in culinary hotspots New Orleans and Austin, Texas, which allows Carl to find himself, reconnect with his 10-year-old son and newly christened line cook Percy (EmJay Anthony) and celebrate the joys of regional cuisine with his best friend and sous chef Martin (John Leguizamo). We are meant to understand that Percy has truly come into his own when he opts for New Orleans over Disney World. You can feel an absurdly happy ending coming a mile off, but like good home cooking, the movie is hard to resist.
The nearly two-hour Chef goes by in a flash thanks to the sometimes improvised banter of its leads and propulsive indigenous music at every turn — including the Cuban sounds of Perico Hernandez in Miami, a soundtrack for a stop on Frenchmen Street featuring the Hot 8 Brass Band and Rebirth Brass Band and a live appearance by guitar hero Gary Clark Jr. in Austin. A Hollywood movie that longs to be an indie film, Chef's plot has been taken by some as a metaphor for Favreau's real-life film career, which took off with small films including Swingers (screenwriter and actor), graduated to blockbusters like Iron Man and Iron Man 2 (director and actor), then hit a major pothole with Cowboys & Aliens (director). Favreau gets back to his roots with the small-scale Chef, and it suits him fine. He pushes the limits of chef-as-rock star believability by giving his middle-aged and overweight Carl two love interests played by Scarlett Johansson and Sofia Vergara. But it's hard to imagine any real-life chefs objecting to the tribute.
You may be ready to hit your favorite local restaurant after seeing all the gorgeous food in Chef, but stay to the end of the closing credits for behind-the-scenes footage of legendary food-truck pioneer Roy Choi (of the Kogi BBQ food truck in Los Angeles) teaching Favreau how to turn a grilled cheese sandwich into a culinary work of art. It's a fitting grace note for a warmhearted film.