In his new comedy, Chef, Jon Favreau casts himself as a celebrated culinary master who’s settled into a lucrative rut. He runs the kitchen of a swanky L.A. restaurant, where he’s been serving the same unadventurous crowd-pleasers for half a decade. The money is good, but he has no creative freedom, as the owner (Dustin Hoffman) strictly insists that he stick to menu. “I got good write-ups when I started out,” the character complains, reeling from a particularly scathing review of his signature dishes. Sometimes, he thinks wistfully upon his early years as an “edgy” starving artist, when he still had license to do things his way.
For anyone who’s followed Favreau’s career since the mid-’90s, the temptation to read Chef as veiled autobiography will be overpowering. After all, before he put Daniel Craig in a cowboy hat, Robert Downey Jr. in an iron suit, and Will Ferrell in green tights, Favreau was a genuinely independent artist—the writer and star of hip, nocturnal talkfests like Swingers and Made. After a decade on the Hollywood payroll, the filmmaker seems to have made Chef as a palate cleanser; in its modest scale, its lack of special effects, and its tale of a sell-out heroically selling in again, the film screams “back to basics.” That said, it’s hard to imagine the Jon Favreau of 1996 making a movie as unapologetically mushy as this one. Nor would he have had access to the big-name stars hanging out in the margins: Downey makes a one-scene cameo, presumably just to give his pal’s project a promotional boost, while Scarlett Johansson co-stars as a waitress with a yen for the chef. (Try arranging that casting scenario without industry clout.)
After a video of him telling off the mean critic goes viral, a meltdown that essentially costs him his career, Chef Carl (Favreau) heads out to Miami with his ex-wife (Sofía Vergara) and young son (Emjay Anthony). Here, the disgraced cook reinvents himself as the owner of a Cuban food truck, and embarks on a cross-country tour, teaching his boy the tricks of the trade and swapping wisecracks with a loyal colleague (a reliably funny John Leguizamo). This road trip begins about halfway through the movie, at which point Favreau abandons any pretense of drama, his feature becoming an earnest, relaxed travelogue. The filmmaker shoots in the bright, clean, slightly flat style of a Travel Channel program, extolling the virtues of regional cuisine and local culture like an actual celebrity chef. Meanwhile, father and son bond over a grill, the latter creating a video diary of their journey. (The film simultaneously works as both a cranky denouncement of social media and a feature-length advertisement for Twitter and Vine.)
Favreau, who’s been a professed foodie for years, fills the frame with some of the most delectable cooking imagery since Big Night: Sandwiches sizzle against iron, pasta dishes come alive step by step, and just about every scene functions as a small feast for hungry eyes. Unfortunately, the food porn comes with a side of syrupy life lessons; this ode to family, fine dining, and getting your mojo back is saccharine enough to cause diabetes. But it’s also a labor of love, warmly earnest and plainly personal. For Swingers fans, seeing Favreau make something small again might be worth it—even if the results are more appetizing in theory than in execution.