Anyone familiar with Jon Favreau’s work prior to Iron Man would know just how odd and brave it was for Marvel to entrust him with the film that would, ultimately, launch an entire Cinematic Universe. Pre-Tony Stark, Favreau largely lived in the realm of the quirky indie: dwelling on character rather than spectacle, finding humour within the everyday. So it’s nice to see Favreau returning to his quirky indie roots with Chef, a sweet, intimate, if rather familiar film about a small band of people struggling to figure out just what they want to do with their lives.

Chef John Leguizamo Emjay Anthony and Jon Favreau

Favreau plays Carl Casper, a perfectionist chef whose career is effectively derailed when he throws a fit at celebrity food critic Ramsey Michel (Platt) for daring to give him a bad review. After his tantrum goes viral, Carl is forced to figure out what he wants to do next: keep cooking to order in someone else’s restaurant, or start over, completely from scratch – whipping up the kind of food that will touch people’s hearts.

The real crux of the film, of course, is not so much Carl’s professional choices as his personal ones. Along the way, Carl must re-connect with Percy (Anthony), the precocious son he’s neglected as a result of his job, just as he must learn to accept the help of the people who still care about him – including his ex-wife Inez (Vergara) and his former kitchen helper Martin (Leguizamo).

Chef Sofia Vergara and Emjay Anthony

What results is a pleasing, if somewhat formulaic, stew of character, comedy and cuisine. (The numerous montages of food being painstakingly prepared and served will have you hungry within the first half-hour.) Carl serves as an effective emotional anchor for the film, though some of the emotional weight of his transition from respected chef to underground food truck guy doesn’t quite come through. Nevertheless, his evident anger issues and personal doubts feed into the script’s funnier and more dramatic moments, while his tender rapprochement with his son is so lovingly developed that it’s easy to forgive its occasional dips into predictability and mawkishness.

The top-notch cast adds greatly to the film’s appeal. Favreau is a winning screen presence, keeping his character’s irritability and rage just this side of sympathetic. Anthony is wonderful as Percy, a role that might grate in the hands of a more annoying young actor. Vergara (slightly miscast) and Leguizamo (cheeky and charming) lend able support, as do a host of A-list stars plucked out of Favreau’s phonebook. Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jr and Dustin Hoffman all pop up in small parts, helping or hindering Carl in his metaphorical and literal journey towards self-actualisation.

Chef Scarlett Johansson

There’s a whiff of the self-indulgent to Favreau’s passion project – one gets the sense at times that he couldn’t bear to tighten or edit his final cut, which winds up clocking in at just under two hours long. But it proves easy to forgive Favreau his indulgences when the resulting film is, for the most part, so sunny and full of good will. Ultimately, Chef serves up its plot – simultaneously sweet and tart – with a generous helping of memorable characters and gentle comedy. It’s a great reminder of what Favreau can do with perfectly ordinary people, trying to figure out how to get by in their perfectly ordinary world.

Summary: Healthy, happy and hearty fare – if a little on the heavy-handed side.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Shawne Wang