The French culinary comedy Le Chef is not to be confused with the delicious and more substantial Jon Favreau farce Chef, in theaters at the same time. Le Chef is a 2012 French film, coincidentally released just as Favreau’s comedy rolls out in American cinemas.
But even if that confusion was intentional, a canny box office move to cash in with the older title, Le Chef is nothing to complain about. It’s merely a souffle, where Chef is more of a complete meal.
And both movies love food.
Jacky (Michael Youn, amusingly hyper) is a pushy perfectionist. He calls himself “le Mozart of the Kitchen,” but that cannot help him keep a job. He insults customers by correcting their blundering wine choices for his dishes, stuns working-class Jacques who want steak or stew with prix-fixe menus at dumpy diners and upsets the residents at a retirement home with his culinary wizardry.
Old people love routine and fear change, you know. They hoot at him. Literally.
“I see too big,” he confesses (in French, with English subtitles).
That upsets his pregnant girlfriend (Raphaëlle Agogué), who wants a man she can depend on. He’s not even supposed to be cooking for the retirement community. He was hired to paint the windows, but peeking in, he saw the kitchen staff ruining sole. So he opened the window and just took over.
Famous chef Alexandre Lagarde (the delightful Jean Reno) has a different problem. He’s a brand name, with his flagship restaurant, Cargo Lagarde, cookbooks, a TV show and a place in a big frozen food and restaurant conglomerate.
He still has standards and an exacting palate. But “I feel no emotion,” he says with a sigh. He’s old-fashioned, out of step with the “molecular gastronomy” of today. And if he loses a Michelin star at Cargo Lagarde, the bottom-line-obsessed boss of the company (Julien Boisselier, everything you want in a villain) will take the restaurant away from him, demote him to the provinces.
The evil boss conspires to do just that.
Jacky and Alexandre could help each other out. They need to “meet cute.” So they do. And let the sparks fly as the perfectionists duel, the master chef is schooled in his own recipes and everybody teams up to save that all-important Michelin star.
Actor-turned-writer/director Daniel Cohen ( Les deux mondes) keeps this fluffy nothing skipping along, pausing only to savor this or that delectable dish. The comedy is peopled with a winning supporting cast, a rainbow of (all male) line cooks and chefs named Moussa, Chang and Titi who pitch in, a swaggering, annoying British “molecular” star (James Gerard) who might replace Alexandre, and a dizzy Spanish expert (Santiago Segura) in that nitrogen and scent-obsessed culinary fad who drops in to help and lampoon the trendiness.
A bit of low comedy that works — Alexandre and Jacky disguise themselves as a Japanese couple (geisha and shogun is more like it) to scout out the Brit’s amusingly pretentious molecular restaurant with its “virtual calamari” and “sweetbread spaghetti” and strawberry eclair in a test tube.
But the knock the critics lay on Alexandre — that “he repeats himself” — applies to the movie, in a way. There’s little surprising here, from the daughter Alexandre neglected while he was building his career to the “big meal” finale.
But Cohen and crew keep it light and brisk and find food-centric laughs in all the right places.
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