In the comic family confection "Chef," the elaborate food dishes threaten to render human cast members tasteless and irrelevant as star Jon Favreau directs the familiar story of a busy, busy guy, a chef, whose career pursuits put all other parts of his life on the back burner.
Then, a pressure cooker of events forces him to re-evaluate his life's recipe and try something different. Something better.
That happens to Favreau's celebrated, self-centered chef Carl Casper, once the toast of Los Angeles until a stinging review from an unctuous food critic (played with deadpan comic appeal by Oliver Platt) accuses him of foisting banal food substances upon the public.
Carl's plan to load the menu with artistic foods gets shot down by the restaurant's conservative owner (Dustin Hoffman), who demands he stick to what customers want, basic, unadventurous foods.
In the eternal conflict between art and commerce, Carl chooses art, and his ego. With nowhere to go in California, Carl returns to Miami, where his well-adjusted, well-off ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) wants him to spend time with their ignored young son Percy (Emjay Antony).
Using funds from Inez's first ex-husband (a hilariously analytical Robert Downey Jr., directed by Favreau in "Iron Man"), the chef refurbishes an old food van and for the rest of the summer hits the road with Percy and his best assistant (John Leguizamo).
Not even potholes can put bumps in Favreau's smooth, well-traveled journey to self-fulfillment.
Favreau writes and directs "Chef" with such conviction and honesty (he gives himself a fairly unappealing character in the first act) that he puts a zesty, engaging glaze over the rewarmed material.
Favreau wisely resists the urge to make his chef lovably eccentric, preferring to give Carl a nasty edge that slowly retracts as the demanding life on the road prevents him from becoming a twice-baked couch potato.
Of course, having a rich, sweet and spicy ex-wife, plus one of her even richer and generous ex-husbands helping you out, is probably the icing on the cake.
"Chef" opens at the River East, Century Centre and ICON in Chicago, plus the Evanston Century 18. Rated R for language. 115 minutes. ★ ★ ★