‘Chef’ seeks the recipe for success

“Chef” (2014). Cast: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Sofía Vergara, Bobby Cannavale, Emjay Anthony, Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson, Oliver Platt, Amy Sedaris, Robert Downey Jr. Director: Jon Favreau. Screenplay: Jon Favreau. Web site. Trailer.

What makes a venture succeed or fail? It often involves a mixture of intangible qualities, one that doesn’t necessarily follow any set formula but that nearly always draws upon certain traits most of us possess, like personal integrity, the ability to set priorities and a willingness to readily enjoy what we create. Identifying and acting upon those attributes, however, may prove quite challenging as a culinary master finds out for himself in the new independent comedy, “Chef.”

High-profile Los Angeles chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) is on the brink of what could be a huge breakthrough in his career. When influential food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) announces plans to visit Carl’s upscale restaurant, the chef has a chance to let his creativity shine. And that’s important considering the enormous following Ramsey has amassed through his very popular blog, a soapbox that has imbued him with the power to make or break the reputations of aspiring culinary stars. Nevertheless, Carl and his kitchen colleagues, Martin (John Leguizamo) and Tony (Bobby Cannavale), are confident they can dazzle their esteemed guest, and they look forward to the opportunity to show off what they can do.

But, just as Carl and company start preparing for Ramsey’s visit, they have the wind knocked out of their sails by Riva, the restaurant’s owner (Dustin Hoffman), who informs them how he wants them to structure the evening’s menu. As someone who’s more concerned with keeping his tables filled than showcasing inventive cuisine, Riva instructs Carl to play it safe by offering a selection of his “greatest hits.” Rather than letting his chef’s creative juices flow, Riva insists that Carl prepare a menu of tried-and-true staples in lieu of more daring fare. And, even though dishes like French onion soup and chocolate molten lava cake may be tasty in their own right, they aren’t especially original, and Carl knows that. But, to appease his boss (and keep his job), he begrudgingly complies with what Riva wants.

Needless to say, Ramsey’s review excoriates Carl’s uninspired menu, which positively infuriates him. He’s obviously mad about what the critic wrote, but he’s also angry at himself for agreeing to compromise his creativity. Nonetheless, Carl doesn’t hesitate to make his displeasure known by launching an inflammatory Tweet that quickly goes viral. Carl and the firestorm of controversy surrounding him rapidly spiral out of control, and, before long, he finds himself looking for a new kitchen gig.

When the chips are down, it always helps to have one’s family to lean on, but Carl has troubles in this part of his life, too. He’s estranged from his wife, Inez (Sofía Vergara), even though they remain good friends, and he struggles to maintain a meaningful relationship with his young son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), despite a strong desire to cultivate a better connection with him. Carl wants to smooth over things with both of them, but, no matter what he does, it seems like life always gets in the way – the same conditions that caused relations with them to become strained in the first place.

Despite their separation, Inez still cares enough about Carl to want to help him out. She initially puts him in touch with her publicist, Jen (Amy Sedaris), who’s eager to parlay the controversy swirling around Carl into an overhyped (but lucrative) TV opportunity. But, the prospect of a big paycheck aside, Carl wants none of it, opting instead to look elsewhere to find sanity, stability and purpose in his life. So, to help him in that pursuit, Inez next connects Carl with her first ex-husband, Marvin (Robert Downey Jr.), the eccentric owner of a Miami-based equipment supply company who has a run-down food truck available for his use – that is, if he wants it.

Making the transition from being a high-profile chef to a purveyor of food truck fare represents a significant change for Carl, but he jumps at the opportunity. With the help of Martin and Percy, Carl refurbishes the vehicle and embarks on a novel culinary odyssey – both literally and figuratively. The chef’s new adventure finally allows him to show off what he can do and to rebuild personal and professional bridges sorely in need of repair. In fact, the payoff for Carl’s reputation and well-being just may prove to be more rewarding than anything a favorable restaurant review from Ramsey ever could have provided.

Carl’s transformation brings him face to face with a number of important considerations (both in his professional and personal life) that embody significant aspects of the conscious creation process. Perhaps the most important of these is the matter of integrity. When Carl compromises himself, as he does under Riva’s direction, he clearly suffers, for he’s not being true to himself in honoring his talents. He obviously knows better, too, but he goes along with the program anyway, a decision that costs him dearly. However, in choosing to abide by the notion that “fortune favors the bold,” a sentiment underlying the trust in one’s instincts and integrity, Carl ends up thriving, no matter how unlikely that eventuality might have seemed upon first glance.

In successfully making the transition from one venue to another, Carl also aptly illustrates the principle of redemption, another hallmark of conscious creation. Considering the fact that we each have access to an infinite number of probabilities for manifesting our reality at any given time, it’s always possible to move from one that’s a “failure” to one that’s a success simply by choosing to shift the path we follow. Just because one opportunity doesn’t work out doesn’t mean we’re destined to experience more of the same when we pursue other options, especially if we’ve learned from our “mistakes” in the initial undertaking. Indeed, it’s always possible to redeem ourselves, no matter how much we may have failed in prior ventures, as long as we operate from a perspective of integrity and believe that success can genuinely be attained.

Achieving success also relies on other conscious creation concepts that Carl employs in his endeavors, such as figuring out what’s really important in setting his priorities and reveling in the joy and power inherent in the act of creation. These principles help to bolster the metaphysical foundation built by the foregoing precepts, making the success that arises from them that much sweeter once they finally materialize. As Carl would surely attest, there’s a lot to chew on in that line of thinking!

Despite the film’s generally effective exploration of the foregoing principles, “Chef” unfortunately doesn’t succeed quite as well as an entertainment vehicle. The picture’s episodic nature provides a number of humorous bits and heartwarming sentiments, as well as a host of mouthwatering food shots, but it also lacks a fundamental cohesiveness and overall clear sense of direction. It’s as if the picture never makes up its mind what kind of movie it wants to be. It’s a combination of part feel good flick, part road trip tale and part edgy comedy that doesn’t do justice to any of those genres nor create a distinctive niche to call its own. The picture’s endless references to various social media sites get tedious after a while, too, at times making the film look more like a commercial for Twitter than a theatrical motion picture. In short, “Chef” would probably make a pleasant enough viewing selection for your DVD queue, but it’s not the best option for an outing to the neighborhood multiplex.

Finding the recipe for success can be a tricky proposition, regardless of the creation in question, be it a gourmet meal, a work of art or an independent film comedy (as this release itself aptly illustrates!). However, if we remain true to ourselves, our creative intents and the manifesting beliefs that transform our visions into realities, we have the potential to reap tremendous rewards and significant personal fulfillment.

Now that’s food for thought!

Copyright © 2014, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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