I wasn’t sure I was going to like the movie “Chef” until the protagonist-chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau, also the writer and director) walked early on into his boss’ upscale L.A. restaurant with an enormous dressed hog, threw it on a kitchen counter and began carving out huge pink tenderloins with his chef’s knife.
Then, my mouth started to water. Because “Chef” isn’t a foodie food-porn movie, although it’s been described as such in reviews, and it indeed displays some of the most luscious-looking eats I’ve ever seen on screen.
“Chef” is a movie about masculinity. It’s about a man becoming a man by acting like a man. It’s a thoroughly sexist movie, in the very best sense of the word. It’s a welcome respite to the two-week orgy of blame-hurling at male culture that’s followed the hapless Elliot Rodger’s killing spree in Santa Barbara. Indeed, I’m surprised that feminists and the prissy males who love them haven’t issued ringing denunciations of “Chef” (I’ve seen only one such, on the lady-professor blog Feminéma.)
Let’s start with that meat. It’s all big, hearty slabs: those supersize tenderloins in L.A.; the chunks of marinated Cuban-style pork in Miami; the hefty cubano sandwiches with which Casper, fired from his restaurant, begins his food-truck redemption; the barbecued, smoker-blackened Texas brisket from the Franklin Barbecue in Austin (when can I move there?). This is alpha-male food, the kind of food men love to cook and eat — and women too, for one of the subtle points that “Chef” makes is how attracted women are to edible assertions of masculinity. Witness the shapely chicks in bikinis lining up in South Beach for Casper’s cubanos.
The contrast, of course, is to the fussy, precious girl food — teensy portions, driblets of this and that, arty arrangements on oversize plates — that Casper’s boss (a brilliant Dustin Hoffman cameo) insists that he cook night after night, and that is a staple of every chic and overpriced restaurant in every city in America these days. Casper’s boss has reduced him to a hapless beta male with a range of beta-male neuroses: anxiety, overeating, inability to deal with either his ex-wife (who has understandably dumped him but for whom he continues to yearn) or his 10-year-old son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), who wishes he had a real father instead of an absentee one.
Casper saves himself by shedding all of that. His Miami-to-L.A. odyssey in his food truck isn’t just a voyage of self-discovery; it’s a voyage of discovery of the man’s world that ought to have been there all along. “Chef” celebrates male bonding (with John Leguizamo as the cheeky sous-chef who ditches the L.A. restaurant to join his former boss on the truck; if Leguizamo doesn’t get a best-supporting Oscar nomination for that performance, I’m going to skip watching the Academy Awards one more time), and also the role that fathers, and only fathers, can play in making men out of their sons.
Percy, living in his wealthy Westside mother’s house where servants do all the work, is bored silly and tired of feeling infantilized. He joins his father, who promptly puts him to work on his food truck and both teaches and gives him the adult responsibilities he craves. Percy’s Cuban-musician abuelito (Jose C. Hernandez) provides another desperately needed masculine role model for the boy.
And by the way, these chefs are armed — with their razor-sharp chef’s knives that they carry on their persons like medieval yeomen. Even testicles play a role in this film: in the “cornstarch” scene (my husband had to explain to me how this thickening agent for pie fillings could make men feel more comfortable in hot and sultry climates).
The most subtle role in “Chef” is that of Casper’s wife, Inez (Sofia Vergara, so gorgeous that she manages to upstage even Scarlett Johansson playing the restaurant hostess with a crush on Casper). Inez is the one who urges Casper to start a food-truck business — because she wisely realizes that he needs to be his own boss so that he can freely exercise his cooking creativity and his manliness. And when he does — when he becomes an alpha instead of a beta — she’s magnetically drawn to him once more. She’s next seen shaking her lovely behind as she helps out on the truck and flipping husband-loyal insults at the snooty food critic (Oliver Platt) who once dissed Casper in a review.
Camille Paglia got into feminist trouble a few months ago for a Time essay depicting men as the creative force behind civilization. She’d probably love “Chef.”
Remember that the word “chef” — and the Spanish word jefe, the name of Casper’s food truck and later his restaurant — are cognates of our English word “chief.” All three derive from the Latin word caput, for “head.”
Casper becomes the head of his restaurant and the head of his family. That’s what being a real man is all about.
Charlotte Allen writes frequently about feminism, politics and religion. Follow her on Twitter @MeanCharlotte.