You know how sometimes you watch a movie and you just can’t stop thinking about it? Even if it’s not a particularly great movie? I watched Chef the other day and I’ve had it stuck in my head ever since. I heard about this project a while ago on a podcast and actually kind of wrinkled my nose at the premise, but it was written and directed by John Favreau and I applauded his efforts to do it all himself and get it released in just a few theaters nationwide. I’m a child of the 90s and hold indie movies in high regard, especially when a big-name director could easily get more funding but didn’t. Also, I loved Swingers. I was leery going in that Chef would be a lot of blah blah commentary on celebrity chefs and foodie culture. While there are a couple of subtle nods to the evils of reality tv chefs, Favreau made a gorgeously-shot film about struggling to do what you love.
Brief rundown: Favreau plays chef Carl Casper, who works at a fancypants restaurant in Los Angeles. Anticipating a visit from an important critic (played by Oliver Platt and hilariously named Ramsey), he works up a whole new menu which is immediately shot down by the owner. Obviously since the food is boring, the review is bad and Casper gets angry. He rage Tweets at the critic to give him another shot, causing a fight with the bumbling owner, which makes him walk out on his job. The critic doesn’t know that Casper’s not in the kitchen when he accepts the challenge and returns, only to be served the exact same meal. Following the progress of the critic’s evening on Twitter, Casper gets pissed, storms the restaurant, loses his shit, and gives the critic a very screamy lesson in how food works. Everyone in the place is filming it, of course, so Casper gets internet famous. Because he’s now unemployed and seemingly unemployable, he agrees to accompany his ex-wife and son on a trip to Miami, where he first started to make a name for himself as a chef. Feeling reckless and desperate, he buys a food truck and decides to drive it back to L.A. with his kid, all the way cooking the kind of food he really loves and teaching his son how a kitchen works. It’s like a food porn/road trip/buddy movie with bonus daddy issue feelings.
On its face, this doesn’t sound like all that interesting a movie. A review on the late Roger Ebert’s website even called it “comfort comedy.” But I’ve tried to figure out why I can’t stop thinking about it and I’ve narrowed it down to just a couple of things. First: food, music, and America are really important characters. Miami, New Orleans, and Austin feature prominently, and they all bring their own flavors of both food and music to the screen. As he’s teaching his son to cook, he’s also showing him that appreciating taste and local foods are an essential part of traveling. Teaching a kid to travel well is a vital life skill, probably more so for people who love and create food. The menu changes as they move through the South, making beignets and adding Texas barbeque to a Cuban sandwich, for example. Drool. So much drool. And the soundtrack is badass. I particularly liked the New Orleans-style brass band version of Sexual Healing, and I fucking hate that song.
Secondly, there’s the whole “finding a way to do what you love on your own terms” thing. Clearly this mirrors Favreau’s own career, his leaving the Marvel machine and going back to his indie roots. There’s a lot of freedom and joy to be had in that decision, and I think a road trip is the perfect way to couch that story. As a culture, we’re coming to accept the starving artist business model more and more. Kickstarter, Patreon, and even food trucks – all vehicles for folks to make a living exactly how they want and for consumers to support them directly. The machinery of business is changing, making room for passion and money to happily coexist. I love that. Which brings me neatly to the third thing.
This movie could not have existed without Twitter. Ten, maybe even five years ago, it would have been impossible. That bit when Casper gets the bad review? He only found out that lots of people had heard about it because his son saw it going viral on Twitter. He wasn’t on Twitter, so his kid signs him up and shows him how to use it. When he asks the critic back to the restaurant, he had no idea it was a public post, a thrown gauntlet that thousands of people saw. He also didn’t understand the gravity of a roomful of people filming and uploading his public freakout, later asking a publicist to “just take it off the internet.” Noob. After they acquire the food truck, the kid tweets their photos, menus, and upcoming locations and turns it from a dangerous career move into a thriving business. More to the point, as his kid is teaching him how to use technology to save his ass, he’s teaching the kid about working in a kitchen and loving food. They’re learning from each other and bonding. Also, this was a super low-budget movie. It couldn’t have been distributed without the word-of-mouth marketing that Twitter enables us to have so easily these days. Another mirror for Favreau’s career, although I wonder if this one was planned or not.
So, yeah. Go check out Chef. It’s on Netflix. Eat before you watch it. And here’s an idea, tell me what you think: booktruck? Instead of bookstore? Huh? Eh? It might work.