In a society that emphasizes internet sensations, the joys of finding meaningful work can take a backseat to the celebration of viral videos and social media phenomenons. Jon Favreau’s 2014 comedy Chef explores what it means to choose to pursue a passion for the sake of the work itself, rather than for the praise or attention of others.
Favreau directs himself in the lead role as Carl Casper, the head chef at a popular Los Angeles dining establishment who is pressured by the owner (Dustin Hoffman) to cook the same old meals that the diners have come to expect. He is forbidden to reach for something more creative and interesting. Casper longs to feed his customers something different and simultaneously feed his innate desire to grow and evolve. The owner wants consistent clientele and happy regulars. Toss in an esoteric, combative food critic, sprinkle with a hilarious battle on twitter, and then blend together with an engaging cross country tour on a food truck. This inspiring recipe for personal and professional fulfillment can be therapeutic viewing for those who feel overwhelmed by the internet’s impact on their lives as well as those who crave a sense of professional meaning.
Chef is also a moving testament to a difficult modern truth: while divorce is often necessary, there are way too many divorces that do not need to happen. Casper confides in his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara), re-connects with his pre-adolescent son and works through the roadblocks that have stifled him professionally. The relationship between Casper and his ex seems somewhat over-simplified. For example, viewers don’t learn exactly why they divorced in the first place. The natural assumption is that Casper’s professional frustrations drove them apart. In this mode, their journey works as a compelling example of how easily modern pressures can cause couples to lose each other. Sometimes divorces happen because one or both people do not like who they have become. In such instances, the best way to work on the relationship is for one or both partners to figure out how to start liking themselves again. Finding work that provides a sense of meaning and purpose is often at the heart of such solutions.
Chef’s themes are startlingly similar to the recent DVD release Begin Again. Both films feature a gifted male artist struggling through a mid-life professional crisis. Chef focuses on food and the art of cooking. Begin Again celebrates the joy of making music that matters. Both Chef and Begin Again highlight divorces that did not need to happen. Both films follow the reconnection with estranged children that blossom as the children learn to share their father’s passions. Both tales involve a light-hearted but pivotal flirtation with a well intended colleague (Scarlett Johansson plays Molly, the hostess at the restaurant and Keira Knightley plays Gretta, a singer on the comeback album). And both use Twitter as a vehicle to show that sometimes the younger generation can teach the older generation a thing or two about out-of-the-box marketing. Most importantly, both films celebrate the importance of pursuing a passion and developing personal agency through meaningful work.