Foodies who feasted on “Big Night,” “Babette’s Feast” and “Eat Drink Man Woman” may flock to “Chef,” a lightweight but high-calorie confection in which the actors often run the risk of being upstaged by all manner of scrumptious-looking cuisine. Written and directed by Jon Favreau, who also stars as a professionally frustrated chef who earns a second helping of happiness while operating a food truck, this amiably rambling dramedy will play best with audiences primed to go with the flow of its leisurely pacing while enjoying the cross-country ride. And, of course, savoring the views of that tempting grub.
The slightly longish setup establishes Carl Casper (Favreau) as a stressed-for-success master chef in a trendy Los Angeles restaurant where he is absolute master of his kitchen — as long as he pleases the establishment’s demanding owner (Dustin Hoffman). When an even more demanding restaurant blogger (Oliver Platt) pans Casper’s menu as too safe and predictable — and snidely suggests Casper may be overweight because he’s eaten too many dinners returned by unsatisfied customers — Casper furiously tweets an invitation to the critic to return for a taste of the chef’s new bill of fare.
Unfortunately, the owner overrules Casper and insists that his chef prepare the same old same old. Even more unfortunately, a video of Casper’s angry confrontation with the critic goes viral — and the chef quickly finds himself not just unemployed, but virtually unemployable. Fortuitously, Inez (Sofia Vergara), Casper’s well-to-do ex-wife, picks just this time for a trip back home to Miami, where Casper got his start as a culinary artist. She buys him a plane ticket to join her on the trip, ostensibly so he can play “nanny” to Percy (Emjay Anthony), their 11-year-old son — but really so he can get back in touch with his roots.
Sure enough, with a little financial help from Inez’s even more well-to-do first husband (Robert Downey Jr., Favreau’s “Iron Man,” in a scene-stealing turn), Casper musters the wherewithal to do his own thing by refurbishing a food truck as a way of reconnecting with his son, jumpstarting his creativity, and providing a good excuse for a road-movie journey while driving the vehicle back to L.A.
The final destination is entirely predictable — right down to the deus ex machina reappearance of an erstwhile antagonist — but the trip itself is never less than pleasant, and often extremely funny. It helps a lot that Favreau develops such engaging chemistry with John Leguizamo as a former restaurant co-worker who insists on being part of Casper’s new venture, and young Anthony, who gets maximum mileage from the recurring gags involving Percy introducing his dad to Twitter, Vine, Facebook and other unfamiliar social media. It also helps that “Chef” offers more than a soupcon of local color during extended stops in New Orleans and Austin, where Casper and his two assistants attract customers by offering their own twists on food favored by locals.
“Chef” goes nowhere fast, which will be part of its charm for some, and a mild-to-major irritant for others. Favreau takes his own sweet time getting Casper into the food truck, and off on his journey. And after the road trip finally does get underway, the film dawdles unabashedly, whether it’s stretching out an encounter with a Miami cop for surprisingly amusing effect, or pausing to enjoy a few hot licks by Austin blues guitarist Gary Clark Jr. at a BBQ restaurant.
One cannot help but suspect that the entire film is Favreau’s way of cleansing his palate, or catching his breath, after the rough-and-tumble, pedal-to-the-metal action of two “Iron Man” adventures and “Cowboys & Aliens.” Indeed, it could be that, not unlike his maybe-autobiographical protagonist, the writer-director-star wanted to get back to his own roots, and try something as simple and shaggy-dog-story-like as “Swingers” (which he wrote, and starred in, for director Doug Liman) and the underrated “Made.” Whatever the reason, he’s come up with something far too entertaining to be dismissed as self-indulgence.
Of course, some may wonder whether, given Casper’s harsh words for the restaurant blogger, “Chef” may be on some level Favreau’s response to some of the reviewers who failed to find merit in “Cowboys & Aliens.” But that theory is somewhat undermined by the final scene, in which just about everyone gets to share the last laugh instead of eating crow.
Supporting players — including Bobby Cannavale and a not-immediately-recognizable Scarlett Johansson as other restaurant employees — are well cast in their cameos. Production values are first-rate, and the eclectic mix of musical selections chosen by music supervisor Mathieu Schreyer could encourage many ticketbuyers to rush home and download the entire soundtrack —but not before they first satiate their stoked appetites.