A heaping scoop of hokey odd couple comedy on a plate.
For a film about the culinary arts, a world driven by passion, sweat, and sleepless nights, Le Chef is so careless and uninspired it’s borderline upsetting. What’s worse, it fails twofold as a comedy, going for the cheapest, most worn-out gags you’ll find this side of an Adam Sandler cash grab. The film’s primary conflict is a dilemma anyone who’s given their life to the food industry can relate to: How does one balance a love for food with love for one’s family? Sadly, the film has nothing interesting to say on the matter, serving up a generic, value meal story that’ll have audiences salivating for a foodie movie with more soul, like John Favreau’s infinitely better Chef.
Jean Reno plays culinary icon Alexandre Lagarde, who runs a classically French three star restaurant, Cargo Lagarde. It’s an old school establishment steeped in old school principles, eschewing the foams, liquid nitrogen, and sous vide machines of modernist cuisine. Despite Alexandre’s legacy of excellence, many feel his food has become out of touch, chief among them being the restaurant’s new owner, Stanislas (Julien Boisselier), who’d oust Alexandre immediately if it weren’t for a stipulation in the chef’s contract specifying he can only be fired should he lose one of his three stars. The pompous young Stanislas tries every trick in the book to sabotage Alexandre, from hemorrhaging his staff to cutting off his produce suppliers, and the future looks grim for the once thriving head chef.
His only hope is an enthusiastic young chef named Jacky Bonnot (Michaël Youn), a food prodigy with extraordinary kitchen skills, skills learned from studying obsessively the life, career, and recipes of Alexandre himself. Jacky’s lost four jobs in four weeks, getting kicked out of kitchens for being a perfectionist, to the point of arguing with customers over their dining habits. With his pregnant girlfriend Beatrice (Raphaëlle Agogué) depending on him, he settles for a job as a painter to help pay the bills. Jacky meets his hero, Alexandre, in a chance encounter and is offered a job as sous chef at Cargo Lagarde. Together, the two chefs work hard to come up with a smashing new menu to impress the critics and save their careers, becoming so embroiled in their scramble for recognition that they neglect their loved ones in the process.
Constantly on screen are two men who supposedly have a burning devotion to food, and yet the film does nothing to illustrate why they love food. The film’s cardinal sin is that the food on screen is never made to look delicious. In fact, there’s little food on screen at all, with the only dish leaving any kind of impression being a trio of duck cubes made by way of molecular gastronomy. Of all the dishes director Daniel Cohen could choose to highlight, he chooses one that represents a culinary mindset (modernist cooking) the film is mocking. (“Chemical shit” Alexandre calls it.) The dish that convinces Alexandre that Jacky is chef material–a red mullet pumpkin soup–is literally not shown on screen. We see Reno raving about how delicious the soup is while all we see in his hands is a bowl with sides too high to see its contents, and a spoon with orange stuff on it. Decisions like these are stupefying.
Once it becomes clear that the film isn’t for foodies, its true form emerges: This is a hokey, lowest-common-denominator odd couple movie. In the film’s worst scene, Alexandre and Jacky infiltrate a competitor’s restaurant disguised as a stereotypical Japanese man and wife, with Jacky’s face covered in geisha makeup. It’s hideous on several levels: Youn looks dreadful (not in a funny way), the accents they put on are offensive, and the gags (most regrettably one involving Youn doing a fan dance to stealthily swipe ingredients) draw no laughs, only uncomfortable silence. It feels like Reno and Youn would have had tighter chemistry had the material not been so weak. It’s easy to buy Reno as a rigidly structured commander of a kitchen brigade, and Youn is a generally likable doormat. But with their characters’ motivations so lazily sketched in the script, they’re given no opportunities to really fall into a groove.
The film’s only saving grace is Reno, who at this point in his career isn’t capable of being uninteresting on screen. His “home life” subplot, involving his adult daughter (Salomé Stévenin) pleading with him to watch her defend her thesis at university, is the closest the film comes to feeling heartfelt. Aside from this exception, the film’s attempts to establish stakes are laughable, and its wraps the story up in a bow so tidy it’ll have any familiar with the restaurant business calling “bullshit” before the credits roll.