Before watching it, my overall impression of watching Chef had been that it was a kind of food pornography. I expected certain number of linking scenes with some fairly ordinary dialogue to get you between one scene of close-up food action. To an extent, it delivered on this prejudice with a totally fantastic vision of cooking – just the “good bits” of swirling, sizzling and consuming. This was framed in the more perspicacious reviews as a thinly veiled commentary on Favreau’s own career, with the film mirroring its own plot with this redemptive and restorative climax in which restorative power of good cooking acts as a medium for familial bonding, a template for harmonious coexistence, and the achievement a true career high-point that allows a perfect synergy between artistic and financial success. Another way of framing that evolution is as a journey from stagnation to artistic endeavour, but while the film is firmly in favour of unbounded creativity, it is deeply ambivalent about how to free that creativity. It is ambivalence that drives critical interest, to an extent, making the film reflexive in both artistic and critical realms.
The film opens with what is touted as a high point for Chef Casper – a review by the food critic Ramsey Michel. Casper has planned a new and exciting menu for the occasion but is overruled by the restaurant owner, who argues that people come to great artists expecting the works which made them famous. This is doubtless true, and is perhaps the first and most important statement that the film makes about Art ™. This exact sentiment is how we end up with long strings of profitable sequels, virtual re-makes, and re-imaginings. It’s why there is talk of a third Spiderman origin movie in only 20 years, and why when I went to see David Byrne live a few years ago, the brashest members of the crowd heckled in favour of Talking Heads classics rather than songs from the new album which were the motivation for the tour in the first place. Doing the same thing again is easy – that’s basically the point of doing it again. It is not, however, interesting. This perfectly clearly frames the discussion that drives all criticism – do you want something good, or something new?
The dramatic construction left no possibility for the meal being successful. The early stages in any film made in the West establish and escalate a conflict, but what’s really interesting here is that Casper and Michel basically agree. Casper isn’t happy about the menu, though Casper’s argument contains less amusing vitriol. The predictably upset reaction follows, with Casper expressing a fully emotional response, accusing the critic of deliberately being mean about him. In the mind of the artist, there is a total conflation of criticism of the work and criticism of the creator. Structurally the conflict is inevitable, but it is also basically without any dramatic stakes. Casper wants to change the menu, Michel wants Casper to change the menu, the conflict therefore exists purely because it dramatically and emotionally “should”. The result of the conflict is, if you like, orthogonal, in that Casper uses the charged emotion of the criticism to re-engage his boss in the true conflict over good versus new; a conflict he loses.
The function of the critic here is absolutely indispensable to the function of the artist. It is only because of Michel’s intervention that Casper attains the artistic freedom that is his genuine motivation. However, the film does not express this vital function as text, in fact undermining it in the surface reading of the film by having the critic plainly wrong about how an effect in the food is achieved. Criticism without depth of knowledge is just an opinion, an emotional reaction that in itself is specific, personal, and lacks the structure to inform an improvement. Michel’s criticism of Casper is that Casper has become cloying and boring – this does not speak to the art or the skill of the creation or creator. Casper is therefore only able to respond in kind, with his own emotional outburst. One thing I always say is that criticism begins with an emotional response – in this film that’s where it also ends.
The middle section of the film then plays out as an exploration of character and is basically conflict-free. We are so accustomed to thinking about drama in terms of framed conflicts that I wouldn’t be surprised if most audiences reacted in confusion and I think that’s why the emphasis in reviews has been on the film as food pornography. It’s the most obvious way of interpreting the lengthy middle section of Casper and his son (and semi-magical Latino) touring around buying food, cooking, and eating. That is totally ironic, because the one thing pornography is not, is surprising, while Casper is searching for exactly something to enliven and surprise. This section is completely free of any critical input from anyone – every dish Casper creates is lauded and applauded, enjoyed and shared. This is an absolutely critical phase in the creative endeavour – the phase where “good” is created out of “new”. In fact, Casper’s original boss was entirely correct when he forbade Casper from trying a new menu on the night a critic visits. The old classics can take a beating – they have success to buffer them. A new work could be entirely crushed before it really exists.
Having fried, boiled, pressed, BBQd and otherwise prepared food, Casper is ready for his third confrontation with Michel. Now Casper is ready for his work to be evaluated and it’s found good. The journey he began was made possible by a critical intervention, but again the film does not permit an explicit statement of that value. The critic re-frames his earlier comments as harsh but essentially good-hearted back-and-forth – he thought Casper was playing too, until it went south. This is incredibly dismissive of his functional importance in the story, and it also devalues the drive for excellence which made Casper into a great chef. He is “rehabilitated” via a transformation from critic into enabler. He’s getting out of the criticism business and into the restaurant business, and he wants to partner with Casper. This structurally frames Casper as dependant upon Michel, showing that if you work really hard, the mean critic will come to love you and make your dreams come true. This completely misses the real benefit to Casper conferred by Michel, which was to get him out of his comfortable routine.
As food pornography, Chef is very good. Do not go to see this movie hungry. As an exploration of the interplay between creativity and criticism, it is ambivalent. As a drama that for the bulk of its running time eschews conventional conflict-based dramatic strategies, it is interesting. I liked it and thought it was a better and more interesting film than almost any reviewer I encountered said it was.