Chef is a film about the joy of cooking, but more than that; it is a film about building a business, doing something you love, working together as a family, and promoting one’s enterprise in the age of social media. It’s a small film with a surprisingly big cast that includes Scarlet Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Downey, Jr., along with a slew of other well-known actors with whom director Jon Favreau has worked on such bigger budget blockbusters as Iron Man.
Carl Casper (Favreau) is an innovative head chef at a popular Los Angeles restaurant. He loves food, he loves cooking, and he loves the crew he has assembled in his kitchen. He is a true artist with a knife and a stove. But his focus on his work has led to a rift within his family. He is divorced from his beautiful wife Inez (Sofia Vergara), and he doesn’t know what to do on “divorced-dad weekends” with his charming 10-year-old son Percy (Emjay Anthony); he’s always in a hurry to get to the farmer’s market and plan the menu for the restaurant, and Percy is just in the way.
When Carl and his kitchen crew learn that a top food blogger (Oliver Platt) is coming to the restaurant Saturday night, Carl wants to create a variety of new dishes to showcase, but the restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman) wants to stay with the tried-and-true menu that his regular customers know and enjoy. The blogger writes a scathing review, and Carl responds with his first-ever tweet, which he doesn’t realize is public. Their cyber war goes viral, and soon Carl is out of a job.
The red tape that surrounds the food truck industry is almost insurmountable. Sadly, such obstacles keep many small entrepreneurs out of business permanently.
All of this leads to a classic road trip movie. Carl starts a traveling food truck business and takes Percy and his best friend, sous chef Martin (John Leguizamo) with him. Together they travel from Miami to Los Angeles, developing delicious sandwich menus based on local foods and ingredients they discover in regions along the way. This is what makes the movie sing. Father and son work in perfect sync as they develop flavor combinations, cook sandwiches side by side, and discover local specialties. Percy tweets pictures and details about their journey, and customers eagerly await their arrival in new cities. The film becomes a delightful tribute to the small family business and the wonders of social media. Do what you love, and do it with the people you love, and life will be good — even if you are living in a food truck.
Of course, no one could really do this. America might be the home of the brave and the land of the free, but it’s not the land of the free market. Carl wouldn’t really be able to do this on a whim in a matter of days. As Kasey Kirby and Laura Waters Hinson demonstrate in their fine documentary about the food truck business, Dog Days (this year’s Anthem Film Festival winner for Best Libertarian Ideals), the red tape that surrounds the food truck industry is almost insurmountable. Never mind that Carl is providing a product that customers crave and willingly purchase; you can’t sell food without health inspections, business licenses, and location permits, and these all take time and money to secure — lots of it. Sadly, these obstacles keep many small entrepreneurs out of business permanently.
But red tape is not the point of this film, so Favreau wisely sidesteps the issue by giving a brief nod to the permit requirement and then asking us to suspend disbelief about the time it would take to acquire these permits in every city along the road. He focuses instead on the sheer joy of working together in a family business. Like many families today, the Caspers have been pulled so far in different directions that there’s an empty space where the home once was. As the story starts, Inez is a successful event planner who must be available for her clients beyond the standard 9–5 workday. Carl’s chef duties are mostly performed in the evenings. Percy’s “job” is school. Maids and gardeners take care of the work they might have done together at home. They are related by DNA and by a family name, but their productive lives are completely separate. The things that give each of them a sense of identity — the things they produce — are unconnected. Like many couples today, their root system dies as they branch out in different directions.
When the family business brings them together, the Caspers feel joy again. Yes, they work hard. Yes, it’s hot and humid in the truck. Yes, young Percy gets hurt sometimes — he burns his hand on the lid of the sandwich maker, and he cuts his finger with a paring knife. But he doesn’t let it stop him. He loves working with his dad. He loves providing food for customers who line up to taste their sandwiches. He loves mimicking his dad and knowing that his own work matters.
Carl says to Percy as they embark on their adventure, “I may not do everything great in my life, but I’m good at this. I manage to touch people’s lives with what I do and I want to share this with you.” It reminded me of Whoopi Goldberg’s commencement address to the Mercy College graduates at Sing Sing this year. As she praised their accomplishments she said, “I tried to go to college but I had learning disabilities and I failed. My mother told me, ‘You might not be good at this, but you are good at something. You just need to find it.’ And I found it.” Chef celebrates the joy of finding what you’re good at; the joy that comes from doing work that is productive, creative, useful, and fulfilling; and the joy that comes from doing it with those you love.