Studying Storytelling: Chef

May 21, 2015
This post is Volume 4 in an ongoing series called “Studying Storytelling.” 
Read here for more on this series.

When I started the “Studying Storytelling” series, I thought I would focus on epic stories and long-running TV series. This, it seemed, would give me the most to work with in terms of picking up storytelling elements to talk about. It felt like consistent themes and techniques would emerge over the long haul in a way that might not be true for smaller pieces.  This is logical enough. More content = more to analyze, after all.

But these things emerge in smaller stories in much the same way, just with less material on which to base them. If storytelling choices jump out at me from a two-hour movie, why not talk about them?

Good question, me.

That’s what happened when I watched Chefwritten, directed by, and starring Jon Favreau. Chef is the very definition of a small story, but a few choices in how it was told leapt out and made it a good candidate for “Studying Storytelling.”

As usual, I want to give only the amount of plot necessary to set the stage, so here goes.  Jon Favreau plays — you’ll never guess — a chef. His career consumes his life, and when he learns a big shot restaurant critic is coming to review him, he plans a bonkers menu meant to wow the guy.

Not so fast. The restaurant’s owner forces him to stick with the regular dishes. This results in a crappy review of the restaurant rooted in the staleness of the menu, and Favreau loses his mind in a rage. Not only did he fail, he failed on someone else’s terms by compromising what he wanted to do. He freaks out, berates the restaurant critic on Twitter and his boss in person, and rage-quits his job.

So his career is in the toilet, and, oh yeah, he has strained relationships with his twelve-ish year old son and ex-wife. You’re shocked, right? Chef is at its core a pretty straightforward “fall from grace, find redemption” arc. You’ve seen this story before, and you will see it again. But Chef succeeds in spite a well-worn plot by throwing in a few elements that set it apart.

Believable Depiction of the Food and Restaurant World

In reading some background on the movie, it’s clear Favreau did his research. An actual food truck chef called Roy Choi consulted on the film, overseeing all the menus and dishes prepared. Choi even sent Favreau to a culinary skills crash course and put him to work doing prep and line cooking before filming.

I have not eaten yet today, which has made this a bit difficult to write.

I have not eaten yet today, which has made this a bit difficult to write.

This attention to detail comes through in the film, and the movies is a richer experience for it. Movies that require specific skills from its leads often have to result to tricks to hide the fact that the actor cannot actually do the thing as well as the character he’s playing. We see closeup hand shots of somebody playing the piano followed by a cut to a shot where the lead is visible but her hands are hidden. We see the basketball player take a shot, but the ball travels out of the frame followed by a cut to a different angle showing the ball go in.

Not so in Chef. We see Favreau showing real cooking skills, chopping veggies like someone who really knows what he’s doing because he does. Moving from that kind of shot first to a closeup of hand second makes it more of an aesthetic decision rather than a practical one. I don’t fault movies that can’t and don’t do this kind of thing, but it’s valuable when it’s possible.

Beyond just making it believable that Favreau was a chef, the depiction of the food and restaurant world more broadly felt authentic. It hewed, more or less,to the Kitchen Confidential version, with restaurant types depicted as intense, somewhat foul-mouthed, borderline sociopaths. Certainly this is not the reality of every chef and every kitchen, but it felt like the right choice for a story about a highly driven guy whose personality runs afoul of others, including those he loves.

Existence of Social Media Well Integrated in the Story

Despite being weird as hell, social media is a part of the world in which we live and that is not changing anytime soon. This reality is only just starting to be reflected in storytelling, perhaps because most people telling stories professionally grew up in a pre-social media world. It’s not an easy thing to do well. How do you manage the scope of your story when, in the real world, almost anything that could get shared with the whole world eventually does get shared?

Believe me, it’s tempting to just throw any story I write at least a decade or so into the past just to avoid dealing with it. Or to ignore social media altogether, which I think is what’s happening more often than not.

In part, Chef tells the story of the transition from this old world into a new one. Favreau’s character is believably naïve when it comes to how tools like Twitter could help or hurt him. Is it convenient when he doesn’t realize that tweets are publicly viewable and that gets him into professional trouble? Sure, but stories need conveniences, and it’s not that hard to believe that a 40-something career-obsessed guy never bothered to learn about these things. I’ve met plenty of people who are utterly uninterested in social media outside of Facebook. Most don’t even think of Facebook as “social media” per se. It’s just some website they use to keep in touch with people and post photos of their kids and dogs.

But his kid? Yeah, his kid needs to understand how Twitter works. Ignoring it would be weird. It’s part of his native language as a pre-teen in 2014 America, and to me it made a lot of sense to me that it would serve as a bonding mechanism between father and son. Which leads me to…

A Solid Father-Son B Plot

Totes adorbs, no?

Totes adorbs, no?

The story of Chef is most obviously about Favreau’s Carl Casper rediscovering his passion for cooking and getting back to what he loves about it. But the importance of him repairing his relationship with his son is the true emotional heart of the film. Again, we’ve seen this before, but I thought it was done very well here. The arc of both the professional redemption and personal redemption are fundamentally the same. Man hits bottom. Man rediscovers his priorities. Man gets it together.

This is sometimes called a plot parallel, and one of the sub-tropes of such storytelling is that the character experiencing both arcs often only realizes at the end how both things were so closely related. Though this can be effective, it’s often annoying because of how painfully obvious it is that the character is on parallel stories.

Some folks might see this differently, but I thought Chef blew past this pretty quickly and was better off for it. Carl Casper seems to know pretty early on that getting both his professional and personal lives back on track are intimately related, that he can’t have one without the other, even if he’s not quite sure how to accomplish it. This resulted in a more satisfying father-son relationship because we got to watch them reconcile steadily and not all at once. Sure, there are hiccups in their relationship along the way, but the film avoided the contrivance that “it was really all about family” by shoving it in at the last moment.

What’s more, the fact that technology and social media are partly responsible for how the gap between father and son is bridged is an appropriate tool for a contemporary story. Stories about reconciliation between parent and child often have a moment where the parent realizes the kid is becoming a smart and capable person, and Chef is no exception. That it comes by way of the kid using his Twitter skills to help his dad’s business succeed is a novel way to do something we’ve seen a hundred times.

Put a Bow on It

If there’s a criticism to levy at Chef, I think it would be fair to say that it resolves in mostly obvious and convenient fashion. If that bugs you, I get it. But it was always going to end that way. You know it from about ten minutes in. And you know what? I didn’t care at all. I thought it earned it, or most of it at least. Again, storytelling often requires some conveniences because, frankly, without them we’d have something more realistic, perhaps, but boring.

If you do not want a Cuban sandwich after this movie then we cannot be friends.

This is a film that — and forgive me for using this threadbare aphorism — is about the journey, not the destination. Even though you’ll know where Chef is headed pretty quickly, seeing how it gets there is still satisfying. The writing is good, and the performances of the actors are even better. John Leguizamo needs to be in more things like this.

Chef is filled with great music and beautiful shots of food that looks absolutely delicious. If you do not want a Cuban sandwich after this movie then we cannot be friends. Chef won’t challenge you, it won’t make you rethink deeply held beliefs or reexamine your place in the world.

It may not do any of these things, but it’s a damn good way to spend a couple of hours.

You can catch Chef on Netflix as well as all the usual places

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