Film Review: Chef
Chef is about trying to find some semblance of meaning in life after discovering your ex is dating Milind Soman. In the case of Michelin-starred chef Roshan Kalra (Saif Ali Khan), this potentially debilitating realisation leads him to start a food truck business with his son. Not the worst choice of meltdown, though perhaps the full extent of the horror will hit home in the sequel, “Chef 2: Boiling Point”.
Any non-Indian film whose typical scene breakdown is “food, food, life lesson, food, snappy musical montage, food” is begging for a Bollywood do-over. Director Raja Krishna Menon takes the warm vibes of Jon Favreau’s 2014 Chef (this is an official Hindi version) and makes them warmer. It helps that there are actual actors on hand this time: Padmapriya does beautifully by Radha, Roshan’s ex-wife (the character’s been fleshed out from the bit part Sofia Vergara played in the original) and Favreau’s strangely offhand attitude towards his son is replaced by a much more convivial relationship between Roshan and Armaan (Svar Kamble).
Considering it spends most of its running time in a leisurely canter, Chef’s initial scenes are taken at a somewhat undignified gallop. Within the first 15 minutes, Roshan has punched a customer for telling him his food isn’t what it used to be, landed in jail, and been fired from the New York restaurant he’s head chef at. After receiving some solid Hindi film advice from a colleague (“If you don’t have a relationship with your son, even three Michelin stars are no use”), he heads to Kochi, where he’s greeted by excited child and sceptical ex-wife. He bonds with Armaan, fights with and takes advice from Radha, frets about the new guy, Biju (there’s a funny scene where he visits his house and is intimidated by the art books, the Gaitonde on the wall, and the elephant in the driveway), and generally mills about without a purpose until Biju (Soman) gives him one.
That purpose comes in the unlikely form of a dilapidated truck, which Biju suggests Roshan run as a mobile food van. Roshan rejects the idea at first (who could blame him?) but, given he’s finally spending quality time with his son, eventually agrees. Cue restoration work and moral instruction; Armaan’s “I’m not used to learning anything from you” after Roshan throws a righteous fit is delivered sadly, but could have been the film’s best joke. Soon, the truck has a gleaming kitchen and father and son are on the road, joined by Nazrul (Chandan Roy Sanyal), a former assistant of Roshan’s, and laconic driver Alex (Dinesh Nair).
This is a considerable change of pace for Menon after last year’s Airlift, but he does as well with genial inaction as he did with urgent action. The film’s a bit too audience-pleasing to take seriously—the checklist includes, but doesn’t stop at: amiable lead, perky kid, bright colours, food in almost every scene, hummable music by Raghu Dixit. But there’s a good deal of charm in Saif’s performance, and in Padmapriya’s (even if her character ends up shaking her head indulgently too often), and Sanyal and Nair are terrific support. Like the original, it’s a film that’s easily consumed, even if, like the original, the emotional beats being stressed are amusingly obvious.
There is one moment that quickens the heart instead of just warming it. Driving from Kochi to Delhi, the food truckers take a detour and head to Goa. There, out of nowhere, Roshan tells Nazrul, “Twenty years ago, I was in Goa with two friends…” The reference seems to be to Dil Chahta Hai, in which Saif holidayed with Aamir Khan and Akshaye Khanna in Goa and ended getting mugged. A lovely little nod, on par with the Abhimaan-referencing cameos of Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya Bhaduri in the otherwise insipid Ki & Ka. It’s pleasing not just because Chef isn’t the sort of film (as opposed to, say, a Bhardwaj or a Raghavan) where you’d expect a filmic nod, but also because films like this—snappy, bright, urbane—owe everything to Dil Chahta Hai. So it’s nice to see a floppy white hat tip.