Let’s be honest about something right off the bat : this whole “foodie” thing? It’s gone just too damn far.
I appreciate the fact that there’s a tremendous level of artistry and creativity involved in crafting a fine meal, absolutely, and that those who can do so possess a set of skills that often takes years to develop. And I’m also aware of the fact that many chefs are promoting a “farm to table” philosophy that eschews mass-manufactured “frankenfoods” in favor of providing their customers with fresh, healthy, locally-grown produce and the like. Good for them. But at the end of the day these guys aren’t fucking rock stars, they’re cooks, and eating out isn’t the grandest experience in the universe — nor should it be. Our relationship with food is entirely out of whack. If you pick up the free local “arts and entertainment” newspaper in your town — here in Minneapolis it’s City Pages, but pretty much every metro area of 75,000 people or more is cursed with one — you could, of course, be forgiven for thinking that there was nothing more important than your local culinary “scene,” but in truth it’s pretty damn tough for the average family of four (or more) to be able to afford to eat out at any of the places these rags spend countless pages gushing over even once a year, so by dint of sheer economic necessity the simple fact is that the “foodie” crowd in any given American city or suburb is much smaller than the people who have nothing else and/or better to do with their time would care to believe. In other words — this shit just ain’t all that important to everyday working people.
Oh, and while we’re on the subject of cold, hard, economic reality, let me mention two other things that the culinary establishment and its largely-unpaid sycophants would prefer not to mention : the overwhelming majority of the restaurants they’re talking about in any given review, blog post, or what have you will go out of business in less than a year, leaving a good number of “local celebrity” chefs, as well as their entire front -of-house and kitchen staffs (you know, the folks who do all the real work) scrambling to find employment in an industry that’s never going to be stable ; and most restaurant work doesn’t offer health insurance or 401 (k) pensions or anything of the sort, so good luck growing old in the food biz. I sincerely hope that all the “fresh, edgy” flavor-of-the-month chefs out there enjoy their 15 minutes of semi-fame whenever they happen, because most of them are going to end up with nothing (except for maybe a pile of debt if they’ve financed any of their business ventures out of their own wallets) when the ride is over, and those critics and bloggers who once sang their praises? There will always be some “new, exciting” place popping up to command their attention, while all those guys (and, to some extent, gals, but let’s be honest — the restaurant business, particularly in the kitchen, is still by and large a testosterone-dominated work environment) they used to talk about? They’re so yesterday’s news. Your long-term options as a chef are pretty narrow : either land a show on the Food Network (good luck with that), or find something else to do by the time you’re 45 or 50 — a point at which, by the way, you’ll still be paying off your student loan debt from Cordon Bleu or whatever other ridiculously overpriced for-profit cooking school you attended.
On the one hand, this is kinda tragic on a purely human scale — the absolute implosion of the “food truck craze,” for instance, has probably had devastating consequences on a lot of families; but on the other hand, part of me thinks that the whole “foodie” thing can’t die out soon enough because there’s seriously something flat-out sick and wrong about the fact that we even have the nerve to critique our meals for being “over-seasoned” or “less adventurous than we were hoping for” or whatever nit-picky little things the food critics focus in on. But more on that in just a minute.
Since I’m on the subject of critics — shit, don’t even get me started. That local freebie fishwrap I mentioned a couple paragraphs back? I have it on reasonably good authority that they pay their food “journalist” 40 bucks per review and don’t even reimburse their meal expenses anymore, which means that whoever is dumb enough to be writing restaurant reviews for them at this point (most seem to last about six months, tops, at the job) is actually coming out behind on the whole deal, given that you’ve gotta visit any given establishment 3 or 4 times in order to be in a position to have sampled enough dishes to critique the joynt. At least the food bloggers out there — who, rest assured, I will be savaging in the very next paragraph — that are doing the same thing most likely have other jobs, and are just whiling away at this shit in their spare time, because it fits their warped definition of “fun.”
Hmmmmm — that sounds kinda familiar, come to think of it. In fact, if somebody wants to point a finger at me and call me hypocrite at this stage because “they’re just like you, only you talk movies and they talk food” they’d sorta have a point, but there’s a key distinction that needs to be made : a bad review from me ain’t gonna put Warner Brothers or 20th Century Fox out of business. The simple truth is that I just don’t fucking matter that much, but if one of these pretentious armchair culinary “experts” gives a new start-up eating establishment a negative write-up, it can have devastating consequences. It’s really no wonder so many of these people have almost hilariously inflated opinions of themselves, because their opinions actually are sort of important. A local restaurant blog that gets the same sort of traffic my movie and comics blog gets — say, somewhere in the neighborhood of four or five hundred “hits” per day — can actually have an impact, even if it’s author is a fucking accountant who couldn’t find his ass with two hands the minute he got into a kitchen. These days, it’s true, everyone’s a critic — whether it be of movies, books, plays, comics, restaurants, you name it — but I operate by a very simple rule of thumb, and I know other movie bloggers who do the same thing : anything the “big guys,” or even modestly-distributed indies, do is fair game, but when it comes to small, self-financed, shoestring-budget filmmakers — the kind of people who invest all their hopes and dreams and life savings into a project — I’ll tread a bit more carefully. I’m not suggesting that I muzzle my opinions, much less deliberately write a good review for a bad movie. No way. I may not be getting paid for this, but my conscience isn’t for sale at any price. Here’s how I (and others that I know of) operate : if you send me a “screener” of your low-budget, no-distribution-deal-to-speak-of, independent feature and I like it, I’ll say so. If I don’t, chances are that I probably won’t even review it — unless it’s so obviously and utterly without merit that somebody needs to tell you to find a new line of work. I’ve received numerous movies from numerous independent filmmakers over my 4 or 5 years of doing this, and I try to offer constructive criticism to them privately if I didn’t care for their efforts, provided their film meets the “absolutely starting from nothing” criteria I’ve just outlined. But I’m not gonna trash ‘em in public for something they have so much sheer hope riding on. I just don’t have it in me.
Does that make me fundamentally dishonest? I have no idea. But almost anybody with an HD camcorder thinks they can be a director these days, and I have no desire to rip their dreams to shreds unless they absolutely have it coming. I’d rather have some kid right out of college who sent me his shot-on-the-weekends homemade horror flick think I’m an asshole for not reviewing his movie that he gave me a free copy of than to have him think I’m an asshole for tearing it apart in a review that’s going to sit on the internet forever. Likewise, a small, locally-owned, start-up restaurant usually has more than enough to worry about in terms of just keeping the lights on and making sure the paychecks they cut that week clear the bank — and now they have to sweat some douchebag lawyer or real estate agent publicly trashing their place on their food blog or in a yelp! review? Please.
Wait, though! I’m not quite done alienating every single person that’s ever written a restaurant review online. I have one more thought to leave any and/or all of you with before I clumsily segue into our actual business at hand here — next time you, Mr. or Ms. wanna-be restaurant critic, look in the mirror, please consider the following : a good half of the world is starving as we speak. They’d run a mile through sweltering desert heat just for a handful of dried beans and a cup of water. And you have the nerve to critique food based on its “presentation” or “originality” or “flavor profile” or “balance”? I think a good, solid “fuck you” from the entire continent or three full of people who wonder where their next meal is even going to come from, never mind what the hell it looks like, is in order at this point, don’t you? And make no mistake, the two circumstances are inextricably linked — they are going hungry because we have too damn much.
How, then, to make the “foodie” trend even more nauseating, over-exposed, and frankly out of control than it already is? Why, make a movie about it, of course — all of which brings us (finally!) to 2014’s Chef, which just landed in the instant streaming queue on Netflix (it’s also available on Blu-ray and DVD), and which purports to bring Hollywood wunderkind Jon Favreau back to his “indie roots” or somesuch. Now, we all know that when it comes to pretentious, self-absorbed asshole-ism, that even the “foodie” community still has a long way to go before it catches up to Tinseltown (although it’s rapidly doings its best to narrow the gap) — but this, we’re told, is a “personal” effort, and represents Favreau’s attempt to “back away” from blockbusters like Iron Man and “get back in touch with his inner storyteller,” or words to that effect.
Bullshit. If Cowboys Vs. Aliens hadn’t flopped so spectacularly, he’d still be churning out big-budget garbage — instead of, ya know, more modestly-budgeted garbage like this. In any fair and just universe, this yarn about a chef (Favreau) who finds himself “creatively stifled” by his boss (Dustin Hoffman) and quits to start up a food truck, then drives it all the way across country to bond with his son (Emjay Anthony) and sidekick/single employee (John Leguizamo), and accidentally learns along the way that said son’s mom (Sofia Vergara), with whom he’s had a rocky relationship in the past, is actually the love of his life, would immediately be dismissed as Lifetime Movie of the Week garbage. Throw in the fact that the asshole food critic (Oliver Platt) who helped precipitate his “getting back in touch with why he loved cooking in the first place”ends up bankrolling him to open his dream restaurant at the end (after Mr. Critic sells his blog for $10 million or something — a plot “twist” that should make even those unpaid “foodies” I was just foaming at the mouth about scoff at it for its utter ridiculousness, unless they’re so breathtakingly narcissistic that they think shit like that really can happen to them) and, ya know what? The whole thing would probably seem so cliched that even Lifetime would take a pass on it after all.
Guess what, though? Even with all that naked heartstring-tugging (gosh, why is the kid shooting one-second video clips with his phone once a day? Why, so chef daddy can sit down and watch them all, spliced together, at the end, of course) and glaringly obvious forced parallels between his character’s “arc” and his own “journey as a filmmaker,” Favreau still isn’t finished offending our sensibilities in his duties as writer and director, because he’s thrown in a healthy dose of racism and sexism, to boot! On the sexist front, Scarlett Johansson is utterly wasted (and speaking of wasted, Robery Downey Jr. pops up just long enough for you to say “hey, look! It’s Robert Downey Jr.!”) in a role that relegates her to being a piece of fuckmeat to occupy Favreau’s time until he gets back together with Vergara, while Vergara herself is saddled with playing the same “sexy Latin lady with a sassy attitude” that every single director seems to assume assume is all the more she can handle; and on the racist front, we’ve got Leguizamo as the loyal (he quit along with his “master” while a turncoat — played by Bobby Cannavale — stayed behind at the restaurant) Hispanic sidekick who’s just so happy to be working for his boss that he’s more than willing to let him take the credit — and the cash — for a Cuban sandwich food truck (the very same truck that “revitalizes” the boss-man’s career, family, love life, and fortunes) that is, for all intents and purposes, his idea. Yup, everyone knows their place in this flick, alright.
Seriously, friends (assuming I have any left) — Chef is, if anything, even worse than the brief synopsis I’ve just provided you with would lead you to conclude. It’s two hours of the most focus-group-tested litany of tropes slapped together in such a way as to give off a vibe of faux-“indie credibility” that it in no way actually earns. It’s the kind of film that thinks it’s being “edgy” when it peppers its soundtrack with reggae and a capella versions of worn-out R&B standards. It’s a desperate — and frankly pathetic — attempt by a guy who’s afraid that he may have worn out his welcome at the big studios to reassert that he’s still “relevant” after all, and only succeeds in demonstrating that he probably never was. It’s a movie about gourmet food, sure, but all Favreau is really serving audiences here is a big ole’ shit sandwich.