Movies about kitchen work and the kitchen culture are often derided by chefs for being inaccurate. The truth is, movies like Waiting are not about chefs and cooking. Other films like Spanglish aren’t about the chef world, they just use the job as an aspect of a character. Where Chef differentiates itself is in the respect and care of the world it portrays. Director Jon Favreau takes the world of a high level chef in Carl Casper and uses it as metaphor for the world of filmmaking. Further than that, Chef serves as a metaphor for the life of the passionate artist and working man.
What captures you when you first watch Chef is the sheer joy that Favreau had in making the film. This comes through in all of the passion that’s placed in the culinary aspects of the film. From nuanced moments played for comedy like the sous chef being hungover at work, but knowing how important that night’s dinner service is so he slept in his car in the parking lot. I can say from personal experience that many nights on the line are accompanied by at least one chef who is still feeling the effects of the previous night’s debauchery.
It’s not just one thing that Favreau got right in his fictional culinary world. These are a few of the things I noticed on both of my viewings of the film. As a chef, I enjoyed the hell out of the film, but I think what makes Chef the best kitchen movie ever made is that it cares enough to tell a wonderful story painted in an accurate and entertaining way. Here are 5 reasons why Chef strikes us as the best kitchen movie ever made.
Chef Gets Kitchen Culture RightThe film industry presents a facade that the audience chooses to believe. It’s not difficult to research the world of professional kitchens and do a passable job in translating them to film. Chef breaks no ground in that regard, although it is the most authentic portrayal of the kitchen world. From the knife work, which is precise and adept, to the attitude of the chefs, no other film can claim to capture what it is to be in a working kitchen in such a visceral way.
Jon Favreau creates not just an accurate physical environment, but the world is accurate. The idea of loyalty to the chef above the owner, who is paying everyone’s salary, is displayed wonderfully in an early scene. Not to mention the stresses of everyday work, with the incessant noise of the printer blaring while co-worker Molly (Scarlett Johansson) is on the phone being a showpiece for the kind of frenetic pace a high-end kitchen experiences. Over on the El Jefe truck, we watch as Percy (Emjay Anthony) goes to serve a burnt sandwich during the hectic first service to the workers who helped them load the kitchen equipment. Carl (Favreau) explains to his son that what’s happening in the kitchen is not about who pays, but about taking pride and loving what you do. Films about kitchens always want us to believe the worst about what the cooks are willing to do the customer. It’s refreshing that we get to see the truth -- the chef and his team are devoted to the food they serve.
Chef Gets Food Zealotry RightDevotion to the food they serve is one thing for chefs, but when it comes to the actual food, Chef nails the aesthetic that we professionals place on cooking. The reason most people can’t cook at a high level at home is that chefs, and the food industry, treat certain things with religious zeal. It’s insane to think that a donut is any tastier because you give it a French name and serve it at Cafe du Monde in New Orleans. The people who should know better, the chefs, are the ones who perpetuate this mythological world of food.
In Chef, there’s a weight given to what Carl calls "authentic" food. A cuban sandwich from a little diner in Little Havana, beignets in New Orleans, Texas brisket from an old school smoker. These things can be made anywhere in the world, with the exact same flavor. Yet the truth is that food isn’t only about how it taste, it’s as much about the experience. That’s where the idea of a food pilgrimage comes in. You don’t eat a bowl of homemade gnocchi with radicchio and gorgonzola in Rome expecting it to be the best tasting. You go to have the most authentic version of that dish.
Chef Gets The Simplicity Of Great Dishes RightIf you’re going to talk about being authentic with food, then you need look no further than Favreau’s pornographic portrayal of two of the most comforting foods in history. His casual and intense treatment of a grilled cheese sandwich is breathtaking. Carl attends to the sandwich with care, with a mixture of cheeses piled up high to provide both that melty gooey goodness along with the biting flavors of a cheese conglomerate. It’s a dish everyone knows, and there’s no need to dress it up with condiments or weird seasonings.
Far more sensual is Carl’s version of what I, as a chef in an Italian restaurant, consider to be the best way to serve pasta. Of course, if you were to try and turn Scarlett Johansson on, there’s no better choice than taking sliced garlic and cooking it in extra virgin olive oil until it browns, almost burns, and then tossing it with pasta, pepper flakes, and fresh herbs. Every step of this scene is sexy and extravagant, and here’s the reason why we chefs make that dish, and most others, better than you. We take things to the threshold. After you watch Chef, you’re going to try to make these two dishes... and they will be great. Maybe the best version you’ve done. But you will hold back on the types of cheese in the sandwich, and you will not toss in enough herbs with that pasta dish. Or it’ll be some small detail you miss. Chef is a showcase for doing food right. If you do make these dishes just mimic what Carl does.
Chef Gets The Journeyman Aspect Of The Career RightThen there’s reality. Chef, for all of its ability to showcase how the chef feels about food, does the unthinkable and makes cooking real. Chefs are a part of a factory assembly line, and once the brief creative effort is done, the real work begins. Day after day preparing the food the exact same way, plating it just so, and ensuring each plate of risotto is the same. Things become trendy, and chefs go crazy making the best version they can so they reach the top of the game. Then the world naturally moves on, and those trendy items become tired staples.
As a chef myself, I watched the scene where Carl finally loses his temper, and calls out a critic for being mean and in particular for not knowing what lava cake is, with a small amount of satisfaction. I understand the truth of the scene in the story, but there’s a deeper truth when it comes to being a chef that Favreau captured. The desperate desire to be accepted and to have the food you make be understood, and even better to be able to display the food you want, drives us insane. Chefs always want to be doing something new and interesting, to try harder. The public often wants only what’s familiar and easy, and the owners only want what will sell.
Chef Is A Fantastic StoryUltimately, Chef is a movie that we can all relate to. It’s not a niche film about an industry a select few of us are a part of. It’s a journey of self-rediscovery. Sometimes we get the opportunity to do what we love, and that love burns out as we’re beaten down by the rigors of daily life. That’s the thing that makes this the best kitchen film ever made: it’s truthful with the hardship of being in a life where you work while the world plays. Where you serve everyone, and no one knows the grind of the day to day world of the chef.
Chef gets it all right. Sure, the story is wrapped up in a nice bow and has a Hollywood feel. Life is a bit messier than that, but as we watch Carl battle an owner as he tries to cook the food he wants, we see that there’s no bad guy. There’s no evil character in this world. Only the desperate longing of Carl to do what he loves. For those of us lucky enough to do our dream job, we know that sometimes it’s tough to maintain the course. There’s a difference between a cook and a chef. Cooking is a career path, while being a chef is a passion.