Chef is an insipid comedy stuffed with movie stars but no bite. Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) is the head chef at a posh restaurant in California. He’s frustrated by the restaurant owner’s imposition of classical dishes, which stifles his creativity. Casper has a fight with a famous food critic, which is recorded and posted online, catapulting him into ‘online fame’. He leaves his job and moves to Miami to look after his son while his ex-wife works. He finds himself and success becoming a food truck ‘chef’ and giving full expression to his culinary creativity by making … sandwiches. In the redemption-filled finale, Casper learns how to be a father, brings joy to thousands of customers by cooking ‘genuine’ food, and conquers the arch-enemy food critic who wants to finance his enterprise. Chef celebrates the ‘99%’ and pluralistic patriotism by constructing authenticity according to the familiar Protestant and capitalist canons of individualism and profit-making ventures.
Food, Class, and American Pluralism
Casper sells cubanos, Cuban meaty sandwiches, from a humble food truck to ordinary people on the street. This is contrasted with the artifice of the upper middle classes eating nouvelle cuisine in posh restaurants. The choice of cubanos rather than burgers is a nod to American pluralism. Accordingly, migrants enrich the country by introducing new foods that can unite Americans across race (but not class evidently). Casper’s cubanos and Texas’ slow BBQ are ‘real food’ for ‘real people’.
Chef wants to mix the alleged unpretentious character of truck food with the middle classes’ concerns about healthy and organic food. Casper is seen sourcing his meat from non-industrial suppliers. Chef attempts to bring the Slow Food movement’s romantic crusade to the masses, but misses its crucial virtues and requirements: good quality ingredients, care for food preparation, and sustainability. Slow Food’s founder, Carlo Petrini, has constructed a romantic idea of food scraping poverty and need from ‘traditional’ dishes and injecting a good dose of class distinction in many exclusive products. However, his idea of slow food ‘good, clean, and fair’ reflects Italian traditional respect for and appreciation of food. It seeks to counter plastic-tasting burgers and the heaps of sugar in processed foods. The film rehashes the tired trope of going back to ‘genuine’ lifestyles and finding self-fulfillment, whilst serving us cheap fast food. It is also oblivious to the fact that, in real life, food trucks are a fashion and a fad, their selling point being their alleged ‘underground’ character. It’s food for hipsters, to complement Illy mochacchino and quinoa and chia seed protein bars. It’s just as pretentious and artificial as nouvelle cuisine, just not as good.
Authenticity and Salvation
This food Odyssey is a search for salvation. Casper, the dejected lonely man with no job, is redeemed from his fallenness through self-employment and fatherhood. The apex of morality, in far too many American TV shows and films, is parenthood. As Once Upon A Time teaches us over and over again, any character, no matter how flawed, can be redeemed by being a good parent. Casper spends time with his son, whom he had neglected when he was working as a chef for somebody else.
Salvation in the moral landscape of American celluloid (or authenticity if you prefer Heidegger) is attained through good parenting (nice and middle-classy), and good old fashioned individualism with a touch of capitalism (just like Breaking Bad). Casper’s son is the kitchen-boy and social media director of the enterprise. He has fun and learns the value of hard work and profit-making. Faithful to Protestant individualism, movie characters find fulfilment in individual self-expression, unless you are a woman, in which case stick to kids. In real life, individualism would clash with family, but let’s not quibble. Freedom, creativity, and fatherhood are available to Casper when he becomes self-employed, as a food truck owner. Chef teaches us that happiness and salvation are the fruit of capitalist individualism, beg your pardon, hard work and personal responsibility.