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Lava Cake or Dim Sum Brunch: What Kind of Food is Jon Favreau's "Chef"?

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire May 9, 2014 at 2:39PM

"Chef" uses food as a metaphor for life, so it's only fair that critics use food metaphors to describe it. But is it a full-course meal or a frothy soufflé?
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Jon Favreau (right) and John Leguizamo in "Chef"
Jon Favreau (right) and John Leguizamo in "Chef"

Given that "Chef," which finds hotshot chef de cuisine Jon Favreau bounced down to making food-truck sandwiches after a food critic's bad review ruins his career, seems like an obvious analogue for Favreau's return to his indie roots after the critical and commercial disaster of 2011's "Cowboys & Aliens," it's only fait that critics indulge in a little symbolic parallelism of their own. As William Goss writes at Film.com, "It’s often tempting to use a food metaphor in one's work, laden as it is with universal comparisons and endless potential. It’s also easy to abuse them, and I say that not just because a food-minded movie like Jon Favreau’s 'Chef' allows for plenty of opportunities to use such a metaphor, but because the movie itself already is such a metaphor."

But what kind of metaphor? Do you compare "Chef" to the creative process of cooking, or to a specific dish -- and if so, which dish? Or do you go the too-clever-by-half route and employ a metaphor while talking about metaphors, and subsequently blow your reader's mind? Here's how critics separated the wheat from the chaff.

Reviews of "Chef"

Joe Neumaier, New York Daily News

A movie like "Chef" begs for a smorgasbord of puns, so let’s get those out of the way: This undercooked but still flavorful comedy may not have much meat to it, but the small side dishes can be a meal in themselves.

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

Once you get past the big names in the cast, "Chef" sits you down to the modest pleasures of a dish served with simplicity and loving finesse. 

Lava Cake

Amy Nicholson, L.A. Weekly

Favreau has made not a game-changing meal to remember, but a perfect chocolate lava cake.

A.A. Dowd, the A.V. Club

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.

Drew Taylor, the Playlist

To borrow one of the many lame metaphors it employs, "Chef" feels horribly undercooked.

Scott Bowles, USA Today

There isn't a surprise to be found in "Chef," and its bow-tied finale may be too cheesy for some. But gooey is the point here. Like one of Carl's golden-brown creations, "Chef" is meant to be enjoyed as a sit-down meal, not snatched on the run.

David Ehrlich, the Dissolve

Where most movies at least attempt to be a full meal, "Chef" is content to be a soufflé, steadily rising until it fills out.

Arroz

Richard Corliss, Time

The movie meal that Favreau whips up is easy to sit through but hardly memorable. The narrative spices and textures come less from any savory surprises in character development than from the engaging performers and exotic locales. "Chef" is a dish of arroz con pollo served with a smile but not much style.

Stephen Holden, New York Times:

Whatever else it does or doesn’t do "Chef," Jon Favreau's good-natured culinary comedy, works as an appetite stimulant. And where there’s delicious food -- plenty is shown being prepared, served and devoured -- there’s life.

Stephen Whitty, the Star-Ledger

So if you're looking for the movie equivalent of a full, carefully orchestrated meal -- um, keep looking. But if you want the cinematic version of a dim sum brunch, or cocktail hour at a tapas bar -- lots of little plates, good flavors and uncomplicated fun -- "Chef" has a table saved, just for you.

Big Mac

Inkoo Kang, the Wrap

Favreau evidently aimed to make a crowd-pleaser, but “Chef” is like a Big Mac -- it slides down too easy, too quickly. There's no feeling of substance, nothing to chew on. 

Eric Kohn, Indiewire

The only fresh ingredients in "Chef" are its mouth-watering delicacies. 

Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair

An easygoing pleasure -- tasty, zesty, tangy, whatever food cliché you want to use.

Christina Izzo, Time Out New York

There’s family-friendly fluff here, sure, but this dish has considerable bite.

Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal

Like so much in "Chef," the plot resolution seems contrived and a bit silly. By then, though, we've had plenty of laughs, and generous helpings of warm feelings -- the meat and potatoes of real life.

This article is related to: Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson


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