Jacky (Michael Youn) is a food fanatic and self-taught cook aspiring to a career as a haute cuisine chef. He knows by heart a zillion recipes from his most revered celeb chefs and cookbooks, but this works against him. Whenever he cracks a gig at a restaurant he imposes his knowledge on seasoned kitchen pros and customers alike, and it is never long before he is shown the door. His pregnant wife (played by the gorgeous Raphaëlle Agogué) insists that he must find steady income and fast, so he settles for manual work at an aged care centre. Before long, however, he is neglecting his work and proselytising to the kitchen staff about improving their bland cuisine.
By happy accident, a famous Parisian chef, Alexandre Lagarde (Jean Reno), tastes one of Jacky’s soups, is impressed and offers him an unpaid internship at his acclaimed 3 star restaurant, ‘Cargo Lagarde’. Jacky is unable to resist such an offer, but avoids telling his wife. Not an easy deception to pull off, especially when he is obliged to join Alexandre on his TV cooking show. Oh what a tangled web we weave…!
It transpires that Alexandre has lost his mojo and fears having his restaurant’s 3 star rating demoted at a coming appraisal by the exacting critics of ‘The Guide’. His cause is not helped by Stanislas Matter (Julien Boisselier), the sabotaging CEO of the industrial food company that owns Cargo Lagarde. Stanislas is plotting to have Alexandre replaced by a younger chef who will embrace molecular gastronomy (a better fit for the industrially synthesized products of the company than Alexandre’s traditional fare, which features scrupulously fresh and high quality natural local produce).
Jacky rallies to the cause of his burdened mentor and enlists help from unlikely sources, but with The Guide assessment looming, is it too late to reinvent and contemporise the restaurant menu? And is the personal cost of this near-impossible mission too high for all involved?
I’m not big on French comedies generally, but this charmer from the producers who treated us to The Artist earlier this year is irresistible.
Not that Le Chef should be compared to The Artist – I do not mean to insinuate that the two films have anything in common apart from the producers and both being thoroughly enjoyable movies.
This souffle-light comedy knows what it is and never pretends to be otherwise. It’s consistently funny, occasionally hilarious, gently (mostly) and astutely satirical in its send-ups of precious artiste chefs, contemporary food fetishism and hip avant garde cuisine, ultimately warming and always fun.
While there is some commentary on universal social issues – eg: the ongoing and changing quest for personal fulfillment and the dilemma of striking a balance between career and family – this is well-embedded, enriching but never distracting from the main agenda, which is to entertain.
There is a vaudevillian black and whiteness about the characters – Jacky, Alexandre and support crew are the good guys, the yuppie CEO Stanislas is the villain, and they all get their just deserts (sorry), as they should. Or, hooray for quality traditional food comprising the best of local fresh ingredients, and boo to industrial food corporations and ludicrous molecular gastronomy. I confess to having a bias here.
While the narrative is more or less true to classic comedic form (it dips into farce at times), the story and character development en route to the inevitable karmic-based outcomes is so well executed that the underlying predictability of the narrative direction is easily tolerable. Besides, it’s not what happens that’s important in a piece like this, but the getting there – and that’s a hoot all the way.
The success of the movie is down to the filmmakers getting the dramatic fundamentals right: the adherence to classic comedic form, the pacing, the vitality and tightness of the writing, the characterisation are all mmm-wah.
The performances are terrif, also. Jean Reno is a real surprise. After all his tough guy roles, it’s hard to imagine him doing comedy as a prima donna (prima homma?) chef, but he thrives on the change of pace and appears very much at home in his chef whites and toque! Micheal Youn is perfect as his obsessive young head chef understudy.
Molecular gastronomy cops the treatment, and not before time. Not that science doesn’t have a part in the kitchen (of course, all cooking is basically chemistry, if only intuitively so), but lawd above, have there been some ridiculous developments in recent years, or what? One sequence in which a mad Spanish (natch) molecular gastronomy specialist overdoes the liquid nitrogen has some consequences that had me laughing aloud – something of a rarity at the cinema.
Ditto an episode in which Alexandre and Jacky spy on a rival restaurant, disguised as a traditionally garbed Japanese ambassador and his demure, tittering wife respectively. Slapstick and silly, but shit it’s funny. Reno seemed to be struggling to keep a straight face. He’s fortunate he couldn’t see himself in topknot and makeup, or he might not have managed to stay in role half so well.
I have to acknowledge that not everyone in the theatre shared the mirth of my partner and me at this juncture. We’ve spent a lot of time teaching Japanese students – perhaps we were more familiar than most with the tone and accent of the Japanese female type Youn was having such fun with. I suppose it’s possible some viewers might have objected to humour based on national stereotypes. Their loss. This is all good-natured stuff that only a PC bore could take issue with.
Le Chef is lightweight fare that is not going to change cinema history or your life…but who cares? It is what it is, and it’s done pretty damned well. If food is incidental to you, maybe this won’t be your bag. If you’re a food freak, don’t miss. If you’re one of the sensible majority in between and feel like watching a fun, feel-good movie, look no further.
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