Every once in a while you hit a movie that is just plain beautiful. I mean, real life beautiful. The story is wonderful, the characters and acting are wonderful, and it moves you to want to do what you were made to do. Chef (written, produced, directed by and starring Jon Favreau) is the story of a successful chef that loves cooking because of the art and the human connection. Because of his selfishness he has lost the artistic vision that he once had. And he has lost sight of everything that is important to him. His visionless existence has dehumanized him. He is divorced, he is becoming a shlump of a father who makes promises that he doesn’t keep, and he is making passionless food.
Quick warning, Chef is rated R for language. And it goes over the top to earn that R rating. There is a bit of vulgarity and sensuality, but the rating is really about the triple digit use of the F-bomb. Consider yourself warned. With that out of the way, Chef is an excellent story, superbly told.
One of the great aspects of the storytelling in Chef is that, though when the story begins he is not a very good guy, Carl Caspar (Jon Favreau) is a guy that you root for, because you can tell that he once was a great guy. His best friend works for him and would do anything for him. His son wants to be with him. Even his ex-wife still likes him and wants him to succeed. It is obvious from the beginning that he is a good guy who has lost his way. Everyone is on his side but his boss and, seemingly, himself. He has traded in a calling for a job. He has traded in his desire to touch and connect with people with the hospitality of lovingly prepared food.
Because food is mystical. Food is magical. Food is mysterious. When you carefully and enthusiastically feed people something that you love, you are giving them a part of yourself. Food is art that can become a point of contact, a point of fellowship and communion between two humanities. Food is a deep and abiding mystery. It is not reducible to the scientifically observable. A bottle of wine and a homemade meal shared with joy and laughter is one of the places where we are at our most human.
Caspar is a chef that has experienced that, and with his friends and family, but he has lost it in the restaurant where he is the head chef. And when he gets a bad review and his confrontation of the reviewer and subsequent mental breakdown in his restaurant accidentally ends up a viral video he finds himself jobless.
And this is where the movie gets amazing. Because Carl Caspar’s problems begin to come to light. He has been blaming the reviewer and the restaurant owner and his own misunderstanding of twitter and anyone but himself. But the real problem that his food has quit connecting with people is that he has been a terrible father and a terrible husband. Because he was unable to connect with the people closest to him he has lost his ability to bless people through food.
And that is where the story kicks into radness squared mode. Because Carl is given a food truck and he begins to get a vision of returning to his first love of Cuban food. And his son jumps into help. But when his son Percy (Emjay Anthony) refuses to clean something, Carl responds terribly. And the lights come on and he repents to his son. And In his repentance knew life is born between him and his son. The simple confession and acknowledgment of the obvious reality of his sin to his son opens the way of wisdom. The mystery of the way of success for Carl as a human being begins to unravel in front of him. It was hidden to him all of this time. We could see it, but the scales did not fall off his eyes until he humbles himself before his own son. And as he begins to open himself to his son and win his son to his side, and as he begins to truly treat his own son as his son, passing his knowledge of the mysticality of food onto his son the world opens back up to him.
He rediscovers what food is and what it can do, he reconnects with the world again, by teaching his son how to love people in the meticulous care of the food that you are putting onto their plate and the wisdom that is hidden in his son, in this case his knowledge about social media, is all added to his efforts because his son begins to work with him. And his lack of knowledge about social media is exactly what revealed his clownish foolishness to the world. So the only way for him to succeed in the world was to win his son to him. He finally makes it when he is too busy enjoying his son and passing on the things that he loves to worry about making it.
And the music is startlingly marvelous. Marvin Gaye, New Orleans marching band style: straight flippin’ amazing! (Can I write that? I’m not sure. But it is, so I will). Seeing the truck crew singing and cooking and cleaning together was one of the best scenes in the movie. The way that they become a little traveling community taking joy in the work of serving people by feeding them was magnificent. One of those touching moments that reminds you that you are glad to be alive and a human being, because being a human that is loving and enjoying and blessing other human beings is a first-rate thing.
And that is what Chef is about. A man with a gift for food that has forgotten how to care about the people around him and therefore has lost his soul. Any soul centered on itself shrivels. But when Carl remembers to love and serve and bless the people around him, when he remembers to consider others as more important than himself, he rediscovers the joy of his humanity.