Film Review: Le Chef

Thoroughly tasty and digestible entry for unfussy food-porn fans who will eat up this story of an older master Parisian chef threatened by the encroaching forces of pretentious molecular cuisine. Although it’s nicely served up by veteran French s

Unlike the turmoil in the Middle East, the hostility in Daniel Cohen’s charming Le Chef is an easily understood, clear-cut battle between the traditional forces of classic haute cuisine and the revolutionary molecular gastronomy brigades. It’s a familiar, light-as-soufflé tale that is feel-good cinema to the max and as traditional as the food it touts.

As foreign cinema of the easy-to-love (if not entirely respected) variety, Le Chef should attract the usual suspects and maybe even a good helping of food-obsessed filmgoers. “Nice” still has its place in the movie and restaurant worlds. But the film lacks the historical ballast of the recent and weightier food-themed French entry Haute Cuisine, about the down-home chef France’s former president François Mitterand plucked from the provinces. But fast food sells.

Here, esteemed haute cuisine star chef Alexandre Lagarde (Reno), known for the fine traditional cuisine of his beloved three-star Parisian restaurant, is suddenly thrown off course when the restaurant’s villainous CEO/boss Stanislas Matter (Julien Boisselier) decides he wants to undermine Lagarde’s tenancy and move a chef into the kitchen who champions molecular cuisine of the trendy (and seemingly quite ridiculous) kind. But it’s not just Lagarde’s three-star status that shakes.

Sensing changes afoot, some of his kitchen team bolt and he’s desperate to find an assistant. As luck and scripts like this have it, a meet-cute-and-convenient plot element comes when Jacky (comedian and TV personality Michaël Youn), a young and self-taught chef who is too adamant about his cooking, comes into the picture. He’s a diehard admirer of Lagarde and a gifted cook (a “vegetable whisperer”), who is often fired from kitchens because of his demanding manner (kind of a cook-Nazi). Jacky is desperate for a paying job and takes one as a painter at an upscale retirement home where Lagarde is also in charge of the meals.

Jacky’s urgency to get on a payroll is explained by imminent fatherhood: His adoring girlfriend Béatrice (Raphaëlle Agogué) is pregnant and insists her partner, uh, bring home the bacon. But painting a building is not his thing. At work outside the window of Lagarde’s kitchen, Jacky notices errors the help are making and, as is his habit, jumps in to ferociously correct. He does such an excellent a job that Lagarde offers him a non-paying apprenticeship in his kitchen. Jacky grabs it.

He also keeps this non-paying gig a secret from Béatrice. Complications are inevitable, as Lagarde’s boss closes in to the point of challenging him to create a perfect molecular feast for upscale restaurant guests and visiting critics who lean toward the avant-garde. And, of course, Béatrice, getting closer to birth, learns that Jacky has been lying to her about his internship and lack of income.

Another urgent matter involves Lagarde and his academically gifted but neglected daughter Amandine (Salomé Stévenin), who needs her habitually otherwise-engaged father for support as she prepares the all-important oral presentation of her thesis.

Set-pieces in the kitchen and at a competing restaurant where Lagarde and Jacky attempt to get cozier with avant-garde cooking function as hilarious send-ups of molecular cuisine pretentiousness. The offerings will amuse many and have few salivating. Smoky, foamy or gurgling test tubes in the kitchen and the often resulting eye-dropper portions of mystery food are not everyone’s idea of yum. (Spain’s renowned king of molecular gastronomy, Ferran Adrià, and his weirdly concocted creations suggest something akin to food abuse. If food ever gets its own support group, this kind of cooking will have spurred it.) By contrast, the classic platters depicting Lagarde’s signature food have the film’s winning supporting roles.

Plot-wise, much more comes out of the oven, including an adorable baby, a gorgeous provincial restaurant with an equally gorgeous owner, reconciliations, etc. There’s no guessing here. As predictable as any menu at New York’s Old Guard French restaurant palaces (La Grenouille, Lutece and the like), Le Chef compensates with an irresistible eagerness to please and likeable performances all around, especially from Reno and Youn.

As in Jon Favreau’s similar and current Chef, the only edge in Le Chef might be that of the expensive kitchen knives on view. The film is a kind of cinematic smoothie, but for some this could be its virtue. Classic and traditional cuisine will always have its place, as any well-prepared, hot and hearty boeuf bourguignon or creamy blanquette de veau prove.

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