Film Review: Chef

This review was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 13th May 2014.

There really should be a warning on the poster of John Favreau’s Chef that informs cinema goers that they must eat before attending a screening. Because if you wander into a midday screening like I did, with nothing but a coffee in the tank, the onscreen depictions of some of the most gorgeous cuisine ever will have you feeling hungry and cheated by your overpriced bland popcorn.

Carl Casper (Favreau) is a chef stuck in a creative rut. Once considered a promising talent, he is now struggling to hold his family life together and work in a restaurant where the owner, Riva (Dustin Hoffman), insists on the same menu day in and out. When a war of words with food blogger Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) gets out of hand, Casper loses his job and his only option appears to be a dilapidated food truck which he must renovate and then drive from Miami back to Los Angeles with his son Percy (Emjay Anthony) and fellow chef Martin (John Leguizamo), stopping to serve hungry mouths along the way.

Favreau, most recently at the helm of the bloated Iron Man 2, returns to his independent film roots with this delicious morsel of cinema. Part road comedy, part family drama, part MasterChef, Chef has an all star cast. With supporting turns from Scarlett Johansson, Bobby Cannavale, Sofia Vergara and Robert Downey Jr, the film could easily have become a messy ensemble pic, but Favreau smartly keeps the focus on his bearlike protagonist.

To prepare for the role, Favreau apparently spent months working his way up from a kitchen hand to qualified chef and it shows on screen. The opening scenes of Casper preparing ingredients, including a whole pig, in his kitchen will have your mouth watering, unless you are a vegetarian (or a pig). By the time you witness the most amazing depiction of a cheese toastie being made, you’ll be wishing that the candy bar sold sliders and cuban sandwiches.

Casper is a genius in the kitchen but not so strong in the family and fatherhood department. When forced to accept help from his estranged wife’s ex-husband (Downey Jr) in a hilarious scene, the dirty taco truck he accepts is his salvation, career-wise and more importantly, for his relationship with his son. Once on the road, the father and son bonding scenes are heartwarming, without stepping into saccharine territory.

With a soundtrack to die for, Chef is a gem amongst the bangs and crashes of endless superhero movies. With uniformly strong performances throughout, Favreau has crafted a concoction that is as tasty and satisfying as the dished created on the screen. Highly recommended.

Published in: on May 12, 2014 at 00:12  Leave a Comment  
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Salt and Pepper Squid: the new staple

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 10th July 2012.

Look at the menu of any contemporary cafe or restaurant nowadays and you are likely to find salt and pepper squid. Five years ago this dish didn’t exist, and now it is everywhere. In the seventies, the prawn cocktail was the standard Australian starter and unfortunately for our cephalopod friends, they too have become a favourite on our tables.

In a way, the existence of the same entree at every dining establishment makes it easy to determine the quality of your restaurant. Simply order the salt and pepper squid. If the dish is good, then there’s a good chance you’ll have a great meal. If the squid gets your thumbs down, make up some story about the babysitter getting sick and get out of there. Pay for your entree, of course.

Published in: on July 19, 2012 at 10:33  Leave a Comment  
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Junior Masterchef: kids in the kitchen

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 14th September.

Sunday night saw the debut of Junior Masterchef, a retread of the successful Masterchef format, but this time with kids. I must admit to becoming addicted to the original series. Whilst I have never really enjoyed cooking programs, there was something special about the show that really hooked me in.

I guess we all have to eat, so watching delicious and beautifully presented food being prepared and served is something we can all appreciate. However, I think it was the human drama that really attracted me. Witnessing regular folk undertake and (mostly) overcome challenges had real appeal. And the art of cooking is something that we all can improve on in some way, so it is something that is easy to relate to, unlike shows such as Survivor which sees the contestants face ridiculous tasks and challenges.

I must admit though, I avoided the second season of Masterchef. I just wasn’t prepared to commit to six nights a week of viewing for months on end. That was going to require far more dedication than I was prepared to give (again). Of course, that would be a different story if we were talking about whacky Japanese game shows or wrestling.

The first episode of Junior Masterchef saw a bunch of kids cook up an array of totally amazing dishes. The quality of the cooking was surprising but what totally shocked me was how confident and ambitious these young people were. I am sure that kids weren’t like this when I was growing up.

Back in the eighties, when I was the same age as the Masterchef kids, I certainly didn’t have any plans to open up my own restaurant as soon as I turned eighteen. In fact, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I got older. Actually, I did, I wanted to be Batman.

There’s also no way that I would’ve been able to sit in front of a camera and speak as eloquently about food as the aspiring kiddie cooks did.  I’m almost certain that if placed in a similar situation, my twelve year old self would’ve scratched himself and mumbled something about liking Space Food Sticks.

I’m also sure kids weren’t as self-assured back then. In fact, the only super confident kids I knew were the school bully and the Young Talent Team (and they were robots).

At the age of twelve, my cooking abilities extended to grilling fish fingers and heating up frozen pizzas in the oven. I barely knew how to make two minute noodles in four minutes. And let’s not mention the time I put the frozen pizza, complete with plastic tray, in the oven for twenty minutes.

The Junior Masterchef kitchen was set in the same warehouse-like concrete and steel cavern as previous series. The main difference was that the cooking stations were tiny, as if the kitchen renovations were done by Fisher Price. The kids were also given red plastic knives instead of metal ones.  Whilst it was probably a wise idea to give the kids safe sharps, did they forget about the hot ovens, frying oil and boiling water?

Junior Masterchef airs once a week so will be ideal for those of us that think a little cravat goes a long way. Hearing the words “caramelise” and “reduction” each week will give me a sense of comfort, even if I have no idea what they mean. The kids will probably become less cute and more annoying over the season, but I guess there will be lots of gorgeous food to ogle.

Although you probably shouldn’t be allowed to make a crockenbush unless you can spell it and be taller than one, I’m sure plenty of us will get hooked by Junior Masterchef.

Published in: on September 14, 2010 at 09:17  Leave a Comment  
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