From the mouth-watering carne asada to the molten chocolate cake, Jon Favreau's "Chef" is a delectable take on an out-of-work cook who experiences career rejuvenation when traveling cross-country serving Cuban entrees on a food truck.
Marking Favreau's return to indie filmmaking — he emerged in 1996 with heartbreak cult-classic "Swingers" — "Chef" is a refreshing passion project affording the writer-director the chance to scale down and get personal after directing the first two "Iron Man" blockbusters and 2011's "Cowboys & Aliens."
When master chef Carl Casper (Favreau) is fired by the owner of a popular Los Angeles restaurant (Dustin Hoffman) for requesting to stir up the fixed menu for a disapproving food critic (Oliver Platt), he finds himself at a crossroads. After a video capturing Carl lashing out at the critic goes viral, it becomes nearly impossible for the 40-something to get a new gig.
Down on his luck, Carl agrees to head to Miami with his wealthy ex-wife, Inez (Sofia Vergara), and their 11-year-old son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), with whom Carl has been distant.
While "Swingers" was all about searching for connections, "Chef" focuses on maintaining them, with the relationship between Carl and his son steadily growing while he looks for his new career.
Once in Miami, he meets with Inez's rich ex-husband, Marvin, played by Robert Downey Jr. in a hilariously shameless standout performance. Marvin takes pity on Carl and offers him a food truck.
Longtime pal and grill chef Martin (John Leguizamo) joins Carl in Miami to help cook meals from their childhood as they embark on a cross-country trip — with Percy in tow — back to LA.
Martin sets their trek right by fixing up the truck. "My cousin knows a guy" becomes his signature line, as he returns with a gussied-up truck displaying colorful "El Jefe Cubanos" signs. Leguizamo offers lively comic relief in contrast to Favreau's dry humor.
With the Cuban sandwich as their signature dish, they stop in places like New Orleans and Austin, Texas, adding their own flair to local dishes. Foodies will enjoy the spotlight on well-known haunts, such as Franklin Barbeque in Austin. And music lovers will appreciate the cameo by blues guitarist Gary Clark Jr., who performs at the BBQ joint.
(And for extra kicks, stay through the credits for a glimpse of gourmet fast food guru Roy Choi teaching Favreau the ropes on the grill.)
Baffled when the line outside of their food truck continues to grow at each stop, Carl discovers Percy has taken to Twitter, Vine and Facebook — social media tools foreign to his dad — to broadcast their whereabouts. It's a key element of their bonding, as Percy captures endearing moments like Carl handing him his first beignet.
But the constant tweets, which are all viewed on screen, start to feel like a publicity stunt on overkill.
Luckily, the performances overshadow the monotony. A natural at striking a satisfying balance between anxious and collected, Favreau makes Carl's arc believable as he transitions from deflated professional to culinary success. And in short-lived supporting roles, Scarlett Johansson and Bobby Cannavale are finely cast as restaurant staffers.
Back in LA among the food trucks that populate trendy Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice, "Chef" wraps up predictably, though cutely, as Favreau aims to make us believe we can successfully marry our passion with our profession.
"Chef," an Open Roads Films release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "language, including some suggestive references." Running time: 115 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.