WARNING: This post contains detailed descriptions of scenes from the film “Chef.” If you have not yet seen the film and would not like any spoilers, I strongly urge you to watch the film first before reading this post.
Here’s a quick synopsis just to refresh your memory, courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes:
Chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) suddenly quits his job at a prominent Los Angeles restaurant after refusing to compromise his creative integrity for its controlling owner (Dustin Hoffman), he is left to figure out what’s next. Finding himself in Miami, he teams up with his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara), his friend (John Leguizamo) and his son to launch a food truck. Taking to the road, Chef Carl goes back to his roots to reignite his passion for the kitchen — and zest for life and love.
The first time I saw Chef, I thought that no doubt it was one of my favorite movies of all time. It was definitely in my top 5. However, the more I watched it, the more time I’ve had to analyze it and the more I realize exactly how much this film speaks directly to my experiences. Chef is now hands down my favorite film, ever. Here I offer a few thoughts on the film with parallels of my own experiences.
At the time I’m writing this, I have seen Chef four times… and working on a food truck myself. Little did I know that when I wrote a previous blog post on one of my favorite food trucks, Little Green Cyclo, that I would be working for them. Back in June 2013, during the Sunset Magazine Celebration Weekend, I had asked if they needed any help on the truck. I had never seen the crew so busy during that weekend, and really wanted to help out wherever I could. They politely declined, since I was already working a full-time job, working 40 hours a week. Monica said she didn’t want to wear me out during my time off.
Fast forward to February 2014. I run into Monica and Quynh at an Off the Grid market where LGC happened to be serving. We chat for a little bit, and I briefly mentioned that I wanted a career change. I’ve actually been considering a career in the food service industry for quite a while. A few days later, I get an email. It was a response from an email I had sent Monica from back in June when I originally asked if I could work with them. LGC was expanding, and Monica asked if I was still interested in helping out. Of course I was. And just like that, I went from customer to employee.
As of right now, I am languishing in a cubicle for 40 hours a week, Monday to Friday. I come into work, do my time, and leave. I spend most of my week in front of a computer screen and glued to a headset. I just sit there and collect a paycheck. It’s everything I told myself I would never want to do. Yet here I am at a “safe” job because it’s the smart thing to do. The pay and benefits are good, but I honestly cannot imagine myself in a few years doing the same thing. I can actually feel the life being sucked out of my body. I’m just a puppet (along with the rest of my coworkers) going through the motions and essentially helpless, at the mercy of management who care more about statistics and numbers than people.
Chef Carl Casper in Chef is just a puppet, being controlled by a restaurant owner that focuses on revenue and the number of covers in a night while neglecting the kind of food coming out of the kitchen. Carl is constantly overruled and humiliated in front of his own kitchen staff. Carl’s hollowed out existence is so perfectly captured when he’s at the market with his son Percy. Carl is entranced by a marionette that is manipulated into a cheerful dance. It’s apparent that Carl sees himself as the marionette- utterly helpless and at the mercy of someone else pulling the strings. I find it poignant that the marionette is a skeleton. While Carl is a chef that has been ridiculed for his weight gain, on the inside Carl feels empty. He is devoid of any feeling or passion, and is a chef that has been starved of his creativity.
“I don’t need money. I want to cook.”
In the aftermath of the terrible review from food critic Ramsey Michel and his subsequent meltdown which goes viral over social media, Carl finds himself without a job. As he struggles to pick up the pieces of his shattered professional career, his ex-wife Inez offers him her publicist to help out with his financial situation. Inez’s publicist suggests that Carl capitalize on his newfound, but unwanted, fame by pursuing promotional opportunities and reality shows. Carl vehemently refuses, and the publicists responds “I thought you wanted money?” Carl fires back by saying “I don’t need money. I want to cook.”
I love Carl’s response to Inez’s publicist. Carl doesn’t want to be a celebrity chef milking his fame for everything it’s worth or become a walking billboard peddling products. He is not in it for the money. Carl just wants to do what he loves- to cook.
I don’t need money either. I already have a pretty decent paying job, and a second job is not necessary at all. I don’t give up my weeknights and weekends because I want more money. I love working on the truck, I love the people I work for, and I love the people I work with. I love the business. I love the interaction with our customers. I love seeing the looks of people when they enjoy their food. It’s not about the money, and it never will be. Nobody works in the food industry for the money anyway. People do it because they love it.
Martin, one member of Carl’s kitchen staff at the restaurant he was fired from, follows him to Miami to help him out with the food truck. Martin shows up in Miami unannounced and surprises Carl when Martin says he dropped everything to help him out. Carl is shocked since Martin was recently promoted to sous chef back at the restaurant. It wasn’t too big of a shock to me given that Martin is extremely loyal to Carl, and has been a great friend from the beginning.
The following dialogue between Carl and Martin is not exact and recalled as best I can from memory:
“What are you doing here?”
“I told you if you ever needed a sous chef…”
“But you’re a sous chef now at the restaurant.”
“Food trucks don’t need a sous chef?”
“It pays nothing.”
“I’ll take it!”
If I were in Martin’s shoes I would have done exactly the same thing. He put aside his job, a promotion no less, to go help out a friend… for nothing. It takes a lot of guts to do what Martin did, and I can only hope that I can do that one day. In reality I’m just biding my time to do drop everything and work full-time in the food service industry. Martin’s loyalty and the passion with which he cooks is a joy to watch. The way he massages the mojo into the pork shows just how much he enjoys cooking. Whereas Carl is very exacting and methodical when he cooks, Martin is often smiling, laughing, and dancing while he cooks. Two different styles, both very passionate cooks who take great care in what they do.
As Carl is getting settled into his newfound food truck, he along with his son Percy and sous chef Martin are testing our their Cubanos for the first time. Percy is helping press the sandwiches on the plancha, when he accidentally burns a Cubano. When Percy calls out that it’s ready, Carl sees that it’s burned. Percy says, “So what? They’re not paying for it.” Carl takes exception and pulls Percy off the truck for a pep talk.
The following dialogue is an abridgement and recalled as best I can from memory:
“Do you like this? Is this fun for you?”
“Yeah, I like it.”
“Well I love it. It keeps me going. …I’m sorry if I haven’t been the best father. But this, I’m good at. I get to touch people’s lives with what I do everyday. And if you give it a chance I think you’ll love it too.”
“Now, should we have served that sandwich?
“That’s my boy, now get back in there.”
This is one of my favorite scenes because it shows just how important cooking is to Carl and why it’s important. If you’re not proud of the food you serve, and if you wouldn’t eat it yourself, then you should not serve it. Cooking isn’t simply about churning out food, it’s about people and the difference you can make in a person just by feeding them. It made me smile when Percy refers to Carl as “chef,” and not “dad.” In that moment, you can tell that Percy takes his job seriously and shows his respect with his use of that single title.
The way Carl describes his profession is the same way I feel when I’m working on the truck. I know that what I do matters and I care a lot about the food that comes out of the kitchen. I do the best I can to make sure that every customer enjoys their food and has a good experience.
“But you look happy.” “So happy.”
Martin can plainly see that Carl is having fun again cooking, and he mentions “…but you look happy.” Carl replies, “So happy.” It’s a reminder that we should do what we love, and love what we do. I take my job with LGC seriously, probably more seriously than my day job. And it’s for sure I enjoy working on the truck a lot more than in a cubicle. I genuinely enjoy what I do and it makes me happy.
When service ends for the El Hefe food truck in Austin, Carl and Percy are taking in a live music performance. As they’re enjoying the music, Carl has a personal talk with his son. Carl tells Percy that once they get back to California, things won’t be the same anymore. Percy will be back in school, and Carl will be busy working on the food truck. Carl braces Percy for the reality that Percy won’t be able to work with him on the truck anymore. Percy is crushed and is in tears.
I can empathize with Percy because I’ve been in his place before. I get excited when I see my name on the weekly schedule. I think to myself “I get to work,” never “I have to work.” A few times I’ve been taken off the schedule, and it’s a terrible feeling. I look forward to the times I get to work on the truck, and to be told that my help isn’t needed is tough to hear. I only get to work maybe one or two times a week. Being taken off the schedule may mean I have to wait another week or two before I get another chance, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking. I would gladly work for free if it meant that I could still work my scheduled hours.
When Carl sees the one-second-a-day video compilation that Percy made for him, it makes him realize how much it meant to Percy to be working with him on the truck. All the great memories of spending time together on the truck and on the road with Percy came flooding back to him. Carl understood how Percy felt when he was told he wouldn’t be able to work anymore. He also recognizes that he wants to continue to make good memories with Percy.
Carl calls Percy and tells him that he would love his help on the truck, but only after school and on the weekends. Percy’s reaction is pure elation. I’m also in the same boat with Percy since the only time I’m able to work on LGC is after my day job and on the weekends. And I feel all the same feelings Percy does when I get the chance to work.
El Hefe’s menu
Food is the central driving force in Chef. Carl was stuck cooking uninspired food because his creativity is stymied by Riva in the restaurant. If Carl had not stood up for the food that he believed that he should cook and not gone on a tirade, he may have been relegated to continue to pump out a boring and pedestrian menu that neither he nor his kitchen staff believed in. It set him on the path to developing a menu, and a career, that was meaningful to him.
El Hefe’s initial menu consists of the Cubanos, media noche, and tostones. This is the type of food that Inez grew up on, and what was served for family meal- the meal reserved for the kitchen staff. As Carl, Percy, and Martin traveled back to Los Angeles, the menu started to reflect their journey. From New Orleans, po boys and beignets made it onto the menu, while their stay in Austin saw the addition of beef brisket in the form of the “Austin midnight.”
Carl hit it right on the head when he talks to Percy about the andouille sausage at the farmers market. He tells him about the history of the food and New Orleans. When Percy says that “we can get it here,” Carl says “it’s not the same. It’s a whole other thing. When you eat it, it reminds you of the place.” El Hefe’s menu reflects Carl, Percy, and Martin’s experiences in those places and evokes those memories in the food they serve.
The same can be said of the food we serve on Little Green Cyclo. The food reflects the people and their experiences, and I am incredibly proud to be a part of the LGC team. I get to do something that I’m passionate and care about. Chef shows how important it is to be passionate about what you do and inspires you live, not just exist.
For now I still play the part of a marionette, though things may quite possibly change in the future. In the same way that Carl gave Percy a chef knife to be responsible for and nurture, I’ve been given a chef knife that gives me the freedom to cut my puppet strings.