‘Chef’ cooks up a winner | 3.5 stars

05/21/2014 5:06 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

The great “All the President’s Men” inspired a generation of journalists. The not-so-great “Top Gun” did the same for military pilots. And now, Jon Favreau’s entertaining “Chef” makes an enticing case for the culinary arts.

Writer/director Favreau abandons the enjoyable excesses of his blockbuster “Iron Man” movies for a more modest, easygoing effort. His appealing comedy offers a chef’s perspective on the pressures from staff, owner, customers, family and — worst of all — food critics. But it also captures the joy of cooking in ways rarely seen on film.

Favreau stars as Carl Casper, a former celebrity chef stuck in cooking purgatory, working for a conservative Los Angeles restaurateur (Dustin Hoffman). Casper is like a rock star forced to play only his greatest hits — in this case, serving a menu he popularized years ago. He’d rather create cutting-edge dishes and reclaim his culinary mojo.

The demands of the job have made Carl even more of an absentee father to 10-year-old Percy (Emjay Anthony), despite pleas by his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) to get more involved.

“I’m not dad material right now,” Carl confesses.

Everything changes after Carl angrily confronts a candid food critic (Oliver Platt) who used to champion his skills but has since written a caustic review of the chef’s safer fare. This profane fight plays out in front of his boss, a crowded house and YouTube, so Carl is left jobless.

Viewing this as a career opportunity, Carl brings Percy to his old training ground of Miami. Together with Carl’s former line cook, Martin (John Leguizamo), they rehab a broken-down food truck. They dub the traveling restaurant El Jefe, crafting a menu specializing in Cubano sandwiches. As they trek back across the country — with stops in primo foodie locales such as New Orleans and Austin, Texas — Carl realizes that both cooking and parenting are better approached with hands-on care.

Burly, curly and tattooed (a strategically placed kitchen knife on his arm says it all), Favreau offers quite a different sight from the actor who broke out in the 1996 comedy “Swingers.” As a filmmaker, he has expanded as well, becoming more known for loud summer epics such as “Cowboys & Aliens” than the eccentric character pieces that launched his career. How refreshing to see him return to a project on an indie budget that loses none of the impact.

Favreau still recruits his “Iron Man” A-listers for small-but-memorable roles: Robert Downey Jr. is hilariously smug as Carl’s ex-wife’s first husband who bankrolls the food truck, and an effectively brunette Scarlett Johansson portrays the chef’s hostess and pseudo girlfriend.

But Favreau really excels at coaxing a naturalistic performance from his least-experienced co-star, Anthony, as his mop-topped son. (Not exactly shocking, considering the director’s hit “Elf” and his underrated “Zathura” featured major kids roles.)

As much as “Chef” indulges in the restaurant scene, it’s the father-son bonding that provides the main course. Carl isn’t exactly a likable guy, especially during the early sections when he treats his boy as more of an inconvenience. It’s Carl’s gradual thawing that gives the breezy road trip its dramatic heft. Even though Favreau’s screenplay goes a little easy on its characters (can’t believe this earned an R-rating), the material never comes across as maudlin thanks to this convincing relationship.

Then there’s the food. Few movies are better suited for a dine-in theater. It’s mouth-wateringly mesmerizing watching dishes prepared by a master — how something as simple as making a grilled cheese sandwich can be elevated to high art.

Same thing goes for this cinematic comfort food. “Chef” is one tasty grilled cheese.

‘CHEF’

1/2

Rated R | Time: 1:55

COMING UP

Wednesday’s Food section: More about the making of “Chef” and what local food truck owners think.

June 6: Gorge yourself at the next edition of Food Truck Friday, 5 to 8 p.m. here at The Star, 1729 Grand Blvd.

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