Chef: Jon Favreau cooks up an amiable comedy for SXSW 2014 opener - review

The Iron Man director returns to indie film-making with a good-natured comedy about a cook who rediscovers his creativity in the back of a street food truck, writes Henry Barnes

SXSW opens with Chef, a down-home comedy in which a cook resets his career by learning about Twitter and opening a food truck. You can't fling a mobile device without hitting an artisanal taco van in Austin. Chef would struggle to find a hungrier audience anywhere else. It's airy mix of blokey comedy and peril-less conflict had the Paramount theatre crowd in the raptures. They ate it up.

Jon Favreau, who writes, directs and stars, plays Carl Caspar, a skilled chef bored by his job recreating the classics in a high-end restaurant. He's called out for his lack of imagination in a stinging review by a leading food critic (Oliver Platt) and - after being introduced to Twitter by his tech-savvy son (Emjay Anthony) - accidentally starts a flame war that will lead to him losing his job. Encouraged by his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) Caspar opens a Cuban food truck, hoping to find creative rejuvenation at the tail end of a foot-long Cubano.

Favreau's new film shares his best work's sense of desperation at life's tendency to move in the wrong direction. It's not quite fair to call it Swingers: The Middle-Aged Spread, but both films feel intensely personal and passionate. Caspar's rage at the foul review results in an angry diatribe about the nature of criticism and the creative process. "You make nothing!," he screams, pushing the mashed remains of his derided chocolate lava cake under the nose of the writer. "You just shit on my shit!" You could replace the cake with a DVD of Favreau's godawful Wild West space adventure Cowboys & Aliens. The point would hold.

Like Caspar's kitchen Chef is hot and loud and full of bad language, but it also has a sentimental streak that is amplified to an overpowering degree. The father and son relationship between Favreau and Anthony's characters furls out. Their tight, bitter dynamic becomes loose and sweet as the food truck winds its way towards success. They tour the states with their van, stopping off at foodie nirvanas like Miami's Versailles, Cafe du Monde in New Orleans and (huge cheer from the home crowd here) Austin's own Franklin barbecue. It's like The Trip, but without any sharpness to cut through the sugar.

Favreau, never great at writing women, gives two of the film's blandest parts to Veraga and Scarlett Johansson, who plays his restaurant's front of house manager. They're angelic mother-saviours, there to lead Caspar out of misery by coddling his ego. The film's worst scene has Johansson's character sprawled on Caspar's bed watching him cook pasta. She bites her lip as the onions get to frying, sighs and ohhhhhhs as the basil hits the plate. His food might be better than sex, but you still feel uncomfortable watching Johansson, Favreau and an Arrabbiata sauce engage in a three-way.

Chef is made with affection, plated up with real care and presented with pride. Favreau's love of food, music and family shine through every scene. By taking a step back from the catch-all requirements of blockbuster cinema he's serving us a home-cooked meal rather than a Big Mac. You appreciate the effort. Like most home cooking there is nothing here so bad that it needs to be sent back to the kitchen, but there's nothing that's particularly moreish either.


Henry Barnes

The GuardianTramp

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