‘You are not creating these dishes,” says a critic to the up-and-coming chef in this flaccid French comedy. “You are just following a recipe. You are like someone singing karaoke.”
That sums up the majority of “Le Chef,” from director Daniel Cohen, which is thoroughly predictable and mildly amusing in molecular amounts. Not to be confused with the also formulaic “Chef” (this summer’s sleeper hit), this French film boasts Jean Reno as Alexandre Lagarde, a famous chef who is under the gun from his restaurant’s new CEO and the possibility that a couple of food critics will appear and dock him a star from his Michelin rating.
Our hero is the guy the chef takes on as a new right-hand man, Jacky (Michael Youn). A supposed master at cooking who can’t keep his mouth shut at the right time, he has been fired over and over. After an intro where he changes the food on a customer’s plate because he feels they have ordered incorrectly, he is let go and takes on a job painting windows to make ends meet, for him and his very pregnant girlfriend Beatrice (a thankless pretty-girl role taken on by Raphaille Agouge). Of course he can’t help spying on the kitchen of the building he is working at, and soon he’s helping them spruce up their menu. (It’s an old folks home, where everybody is used to complaining about the food.)
Anyway, Lagarde and Jacky meet up and one of the running jokes is that Jacky thinks more like Lagarde than the man himself, having studied his cookbooks for years. Both are having problems with women — Lagarde is divorced and puts his job above his daughter, who is prepping her dissertation thesis; Jacky lies about his unpaid internship with Lagarde, and so Beatrice leaves him. This is one of those situations that would not exist if movie people just talked to each other like real people.
Do food critics really play an integral part in chefs’ lives like they seem to do in films? Does one meal make or break a restaurant? Modern cuisine always gets dissed in favor of home-cooked meals, where cooking from the heart always trumps skill and learning. It’s tedious and tells us nothing new.
There are a few minor funny moments. Jacky’s friends from the retirement home make an affable trio and get some good business going. A molecular chef and/or charlatan (Santiago Segura) arrives to almost destroy the kitchen with his experiments.
But most foul is a bit of slapstick where Mr. Reno and Mr. Youn dress up like a samurai and a geisha respectively to go undercover in a competitor’s restaurant. Its casual racism may be not as offensive as Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” but it is squirmingly out of place and dispiriting. This is the best they could do?
The female characters exist to give one-note performances: Beatrice sulks and leaves Jacky until he wins her back in the last moments. A cute restaurateur exists to receive Lagarde’s flirts, then only resurfaces at the end as his partner to show he lived happily ever after. And Lagarde’s daughter just whines about how her dad isn’t around.
“Chef” — the Jon Favreau film — had similar problems with its main female character — Sofia Vergara — but at least she pushed the plot along. That movie was also formulaic, but let’s just say it used much fresher ingredients. “Le Chef” is like that disappointing microwave meal you get from the supermarket: it looks nothing like the cover.
Starring: Jean Reno, Michael Youn, Raphaille Agouge
Length: 84 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language