Served up by the smiling Jean Reno and the persnickety Michael Youn, Le Chef (originally, Comme un chef) is French comfort food in the traditional sense. It may not be particularly good for you, nutrition-wise, but it sure is tasty.
Jacky Bonnot (Youn) is blessed -- and/or cursed, depending on your point of view -- with a perfect sense of taste, complemented by a perfect sense of smell, and accented by a refusal to accept anything less than perfection in the kitchen. His self-righteous judgment extends into the dining room, where he does not hesitate to inform hapless diners what it is that they should be eating and drinking.
As might be imagined, this has led to a succession of jobs where he comes into conflict, either with the owners, the kitchen staff, the diners, or, most likely, all three at once. Beatrice (Raphaëlle Agogué), his long-suffering live-in girlfriend, has supported them, but she is eight months pregnant and finally puts her foot down, insisting that he accept a position in manual labor, at least until she can return to work. Reluctantly, he agrees, but he has barely learned his duties as a painter at a lavish facility for senior citizens before he bursts through a kitchen window to tell the inexperienced three-member kitchen staff how and what they should be cooking.
Meanwhile, Alexandre Lagarde (Reno) has lost his passion for cooking. He runs a successful fine-dining establishment bearing his name and has maintained a three-star rating for years, but he sold out years ago to a corporation that now demands that he change with the times and start serving new, jazzy, molecular food items that will return a greater investment on the corporation's dime. With his new spring menu -- and critical scrutiny -- approaching, Reno is told that if he loses even one star from his rating, he will be forced out.
Naturally, the two men must cross paths, suffer conflicts, come to an understanding, and fall in love, just as in every other proper romantic comedy.
As written and directed by Daniel Cohen, however, the love affair in Le Chef is not between the two men, nor is it the supposed love that exists between Jacky and Beatrice. No, it's entirely about the passion expressed by Jacky toward the food that he cooks. It's a one-way affair -- Jacky rarely sits down and eats the food -- yet it's a given that the food appreciates the cook. 'If I am to die,' declares the zucchini, 'let it be only by the hand of Jacky!'
Nothing that bold or zany is shown in the film itself, but that is the spirit that inspires. Le Chef debuted more than two years ago in Europe, but is finally making its way to the U.S., hitting art house theaters a couple of months after Jon Favreau covered similar ground in Chef. The approach is different; Favreau played a cook who yearned to come up with new and different flavor combinations.
In Le Chef, Reno represents a bastion of traditional French cooking, resistant to change. (The "molecular movement" is dismissed with cheap jokes, as though nothing good had ever come from such techniques.) Youn, however, is more difficult to peg; he has committed Reno's entire history of menus to memory, yet insists that different ingredients be used purely according to his own taste. Is he a traditionalist? Or does he represent the New Traditionalism?
It's a minor point, although it's about the only idea in the movie that is fresh or new. Still, when the old ingredients mesh together so well and cook up so nicely, why criticize the cook? Le Chef banks on the familiar, yielding an abundance of good-hearted, family-style humor.
The film is now playing in select cities in the U.S. It rolls out to other cities, including my current hometown of Dallas, Texas, on Friday, July 25. Visit the official site for more information.