Thanks mostly to the increasingly limited nightlife agenda of my increasingly pregnant wife, I’ve seen more movies in the past year than in any year I can remember. These date nights and the numerous boxes of Good & Plenty I consumed along the way have been two of the more welcomed perks of our imminent parenthood. Furthermore, it had the follow-on effect of heightening my interest in last month’s Oscars, which, though mildly entertaining, was completely lacking in any recognition of outstanding sandwiches in film.
Plenty of movies have memorable one-off scenes involving sandwiches — Bon Appétit has the quintessential listicle — but far too few feature the sandwich as a central narrative device. Among the films I saw last year, there were a couple great ones and more than a few good ones, but “Chef,” written by and starring Jon Favreau as a hotshot Los Angeles chef, was the only one to fit this bill. For this it deserves your immediate attention, and LUCKY YOU it happens to be streaming on Netflix as I type.
On its surface, “Chef” is a classic road movie that tells the heartwarming story of a late-blooming friendship between father and son. It’s also about food trucks and social media and creativity and rediscovery. There’s an absurd cameo from Robert Downey Jr., a bitchin’ soundtrack, a splendid supporting cast including Oliver Platt, John Leguizamo, Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson, and Sofia Vergara, and food porn aplenty.
The real stars, though, are the sandwiches…
First, there’s a homemade grilled cheese whose tender caressing by Favreau’s character, Carl, is shot with such intimacy that it’s borderline erotic. We learn from outtake footage in the closing credits that real-life LA food truck king Roy Choi coached Favreau on everything from where to find the hottest spot on the skillet to the angle at which a spatula should be held. At this point in the story, Carl can make his son a killer sandwich but is otherwise a pretty lousy dad. But damn, that sandwich looks good.
Before long, a rather public professional meltdown lands Carl in Miami serving nannying his own son. After destroying an inspirational Cuban sandwich at Versailles in Little Havana, he procures a broken-down food truck from his ex-wife’s first husband. Soon, with son Percy and former kitchen colleague Martin in tow, he embarks on a cross-country roadtrip to return the truck to the West Coast. Along the way, there are media noches and fried yuca on South Beach. There are po-boys and brass bands in the Marigny and, after a stop at Franklin, mouthwatering barbecue brisket sliders and Gary Clark Jr. in Austin.
At a deeper level, “Chef” is about reconnection, reconciliation, and, ultimately, absolution. It’s about getting back to basics and celebrating life’s real food. There is no better choice for the culinary manifestation of these themes than the humble sandwich. We love sandwiches for their simplicity and their lack of pretension, and we love “Chef” for the same reasons. So go give it a watch, and never forget to shower the people you love with love… and sandwiches.