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Robert Appelbaum
All the Things That Are Wrong with
Jon Favreau’s
Chef

Chef, written, directed by and starring Jon Favreau, is what a number of critics have called,
unapologetically, a “feel good movie.” Few critics I have seen especially admire it.
Stephen Holden of the
New York Times called it “shallow.” But everyone whose review I have seen, including Holden, has
admitted to finding the movie enjoyable.
I liked some of it too. And sitting next to me in the theatre, my companion, who is even more of a foodie
than I am, was sighing with pleasure as she saw the chef of the title, Carl Casper, spin out his slow-roasted
belly pork and his roast squab with pickled red onion, or, while visiting Austin, Texas, tuck into an
irresistible slab of blackened barbecued brisket. She also enjoyed the story. In
Chef, a well-known,
achingly divorced Los Angeles cook with an alienated ten-year-old son gets fired for refusing to keep
cooking from the same tried-and-true menu at every meal. He then gets hold of a food truck in Miami,
Florida, rediscovers Cuban street food, starts a new business, reconnects with his son, goes on a happy
road trip back to Los Angeles in the food truck, becomes a commercial success, reunites with his
beautiful ex-wife, and in the end opens a fine new restaurant featuring innovative gutsy cuisine for the
genuine lover of food. On opening night, everybody dances to salsa. And what’s not to love?
There was of course an important opportunity overlooked. When the chef reconnects with his love for
gutsy food, and its roots in ethnic cuisine, he seems to be on the verge of rediscovering himself as well. Or
rather, he is on the verge of discovering a new kind of self, a new kind of being. Away from the pretentious
fine dining scene of wealthy Los Angelenos, he is serving food that is cheap, fast, casual and populist.
That would seem to have been the point of the film; it is even what the advertisements for the film led me
to expect. But in the end, real happiness comes when Casper emerges as a celebrity. All the world begins
tweeting about his career and his truck, and in the end, after a few months, he becomes again the head of
a fine dining establishment. His new restaurant will be unpretentious, we seem to be told, with a variety
of ethnic-inspired dishes; but it will also be a classically organized upscale sit down restaurant; and it
will be famous and incredibly successful. It has the backing of one of the most famous and well-to-do food
critics in the nation. The chef has arrived as a chef, and he and the rest of his family will live happily ever
after.
In other words, instead of bringing the delusions and inequities of food culture in America down a few
pegs, and instead of showing a man coming to terms with the limitations of economic life,
Chef celebrates
celebrity, success, economic competition and inequality; all it does to the myth of the self-made celebrity-
chef is add some Cuban spice to the plate.
Now from the point of view of popular culture and foodie culture today, one can still respond to the film
as I describe it as a feel-good movie. What is not to love? But while watching it I was asking myself, if
running a food truck is so rewarding, why did the chef jump at the first chance he got to start a new
restaurant? I was wondering too about the implication of the movie that, even though the chef will go on
to running a restaurant again, since that is apparently a better way to go, there are never any downsides
to running your own food truck. It’s a carnival of happy cooking and happy gluttony out there, and
everybody is making money hands over fist! The work is always fun! The popular American television
program
Eat Street, which I have also enjoyed, plays a role in propagating the myth. In Eat Street, as in
Chef, it is always summer, the sun is always shining but not too fiercely, or else a warm mild night has
come, crowds are always lined up and patient, however eager they are to taste your food, the cash keeps
coming in and at the end of the day – which on TV and in the movie usually seems to come around three
in the afternoon – the food truck owner is always gratified by the love he has exchanged with his
customers and his employees, and proud that he or she is now economically self-sufficient, and will
probably be so forever. No one ever thinks about what it means to run a food truck in January, in the snow
or the rain, when it is cold or damp in the truck and the customers stay away; or about what it means not
to be working in a facility without a toilet; or to find one day that loaded up with food and ready to go out
to a site, one’s truck is broken down and will have to go to the garage, and end up losing money in all
kinds of ways; or what it means not to be able to take a vacation, or to be able to pay one’s employees a
decent wage; or, never mind a vacation, what it means not to be able to take a day off for weeks, or to put
in less than a twelve-hour day every day, or to think about what will happen in twenty years, when one
has aged into one’s sixth decade, and one no longer has the kind of physical energy one needs to work on
one’s feet in a cramped truck. No one ever seems to think about the inevitable: that if the real food truck
industry actually becomes a substantial part of American life and a guaranteed money-maker, big
business will step in, start franchises, and put all those self-sufficient seven-day-a-weekers out of
business. Maybe the corporatization of the food truck is already starting. If you can run one good food
truck, and can rely on employees, you can probably run twenty of them from a distance. If you can find a
guy who can run twenty food trucks and you’ve got a bankroll behind you, you can hire him to start an
empire that will run into the hundreds. Food trucks will be no more redemptive than McDonald’s.
The core of Jon Favreau’s movie is so hollow you could stuff it with a ton of chopped chorizo. Economic
life today presents people with dilemmas, including a struggle for a sense of self-worth and authenticity;
but the good guy can not only resolve those dilemmas but transcend them. He can become a celebrity
and claim the high road of self-esteem and authenticity too. Authenticity, happiness, community – all
those things that seem to be missing from the commercial world today – can be found in the marginal
outlets of ethnic traditions. But the good guy cannot only learn from those traditions, he can exploit
them, mix them together and use them to create a fine dining experience which will earn him and his
partner a lot of money. On his road trip through the southern United States the chef of the movie – whose
name Carl Casper could be German, Nordic or English, and whose character is culturally and ethnically
rootless – adopts local dishes from Cuban Miami, French Creole New Orleans, and Texan Austin, Texas.
Then he proceeds to mix them up, serve them to customers in what amounts to a food truck food court in
Los Angeles, and so absolutely violate the very spirit of locality and ethnicity that he is supposed to be
drawing upon. And this earns him financial backing from the food critic.
As some
film critics have noted, the movie can be read as autobiographical allegory. The movie is not
about the dilemmas of being a successful chef so much as it is about the dilemmas of being a successful
Hollywood director. The Favreau character who gets fired for refusing to serve the same old dishes again
and again is
Jon Favreau the actor and director, who made his name making quirky indie films but
eventually went corporate, directing such ludicrous money-makers as
Elf, Iron Man and Iron Man 2, and
helping produce
Iron Man 3. Coming soon is a remake of The Jungle Book. Jon Favreau the actor and
director sold out a long time ago; but Carl Casper the Favreau character stops selling out, and gets
rewarded for it too, becoming precisely what someone who does not sell out is not supposed to become – a
celebrity. In the world of Jon Favreau, whether you sell out or you don’t sell out, it is all the same, since
either way you end up being famous and living in Beverley Hills.
Favreau has not been silent about the comparison, but he shows in statements about the comparison that
he completely misunderstands what is involved in it. “What chefs and filmmakers have in common is that
they tend to be very adamant in their vision, and they’ll fight anybody who tries to change that vision,”
said Favreau in
an interview in Wired. “But if that film is screened for one audience that doesn’t laugh, or
if a customer sends the food back, they’ll completely rethink everything. As adamant as they were five
minutes earlier, the idea of having it rejected by the public is so horrifying to them that they will back off
it all and blame themselves because their pleasure, their happiness comes from the pleasure of others.” In
other words, what the chef and the filmmaker have in common is not that they are dedicated to art, but to
pleasing the multitudes, to doing whatever it takes to make people enjoy their products. This is of course
the opposite of the creed of authenticity from which
Chef is supposed to take its bearings; it is also the
opposite of what a good filmmaker must do if he or she is to make a movie that doesn’t just sell tickets, but
that also says something about the world.
Chef says something, of course. But what it says is false, ignorant, apolitical and malignant. The
Conservative politician
Norman Tebbit was once roundly criticized for heartlessly telling the unemployed
in Britain  to “get on your bike and look for work.”
Chef tells the struggling so-called middle class of
America to “get on your food truck.” Only in Hollywood, when you get on your food truck there is never
any rain, and in any case you will end up running an upscale restaurant after just a few months. In
Hollywood, the law of the jungle never ends up hurting anybody, because the only people who have to
struggle in it end up unequivocal winners who live happily ever after. Just ask Jon Favreau, director of
the forthcoming
Jungle Book – that fantastic, happy-ending testimonial, as Rudyard Kipling originally
wrote it, to the absolute benevolence of British imperialism. I do not doubt that somewhere at the Disney
corporation producers are already making plans for
The Jungle Book 2, and that Favreau has already been
lined up to play a role in making it.