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August 3, 2014

Summer's indie hit "Chef": disturbingly sexist about men, women, their bodies and food




Chef is this summer’s movie darling for a certain demographic – people like me who believe they have discerning tastes, not just in film, but in contemporary culture, including, of course, food.

Maybe Chef is enjoying its long run in movie theaters because Woody Allen failed with Magic in the Moonlight to provide this summer’s elevated alternative to the usual blockbuster/superhero fare.

More likely, people have fallen for Chef director Jon Favreau’s trite and manipulative tale about a so-called creative genius chef who finds creative fulfillment on personal terms – and in ways that mean his schlubby, self-centered protagonist gets to gorge on food while the beautiful, busty-skinny women around him gaze on lovingly – without getting to eat themselves.

Yeah, I really didn't like Chef because it advocates a gusto for food and savoring the full flavor of life – but only if you’re male. 

If you’re a girl, you smile sweetly, make witty, cute and loving remarks, then pick at your salad and do your best to maintain a size 0, 36-D figure. 

The chef, Carl Casper, is having a midlife crisis and gets fired from a trendy LA restaurant but finds culinary salvation – and Twitter popularity – by: 1) going full food truck 2) male-bonding with his son 3) male-bonding with other guys who appreciate his ways up carving up and grilling big slabs of meat and 4) remaining the center of intrigue for gorgeous women played by Scarlett Johannson and Sofia Vergara.

Much has been made about how Favreau, who directed blockbusters Elf, Ironman and Ironman 2, made this movie to return to his independent, small-movie roots. But the filmmaking in Chef “couldn’t be more Hollywood-minded,” says Ben Sachs, a critic for the Chicago Reader. Chef is “thin and bland” with its “sentimental plot and sitcom-ready one-liners would be right at home in a Billy Crystal vehicle.”
I’d add that the plot is cynically manipulated to complete an easy checklist of pop culture touchstones, including: foodie chic and food truck chic, Cuban sandwiches, tweeting your life, selfies, social media marketing, the genius hero’s messy industrial-style apartment and anything New Orleans, Texas barbecue or Austin music scene. There is one amusing cultural faux pas, pointed out by the LA Weekly: how AOL becomes relevant enough for a plot point by paying $10 million to buy a food writer’s blog.
But let’s get to Favreau’s curious depiction of men and women and what’s socially acceptable in terms of their bodies, weight and food consumption.
One writer for the Los Angeles Times picked up on how the film’s relationship to food portrays an overt sexism, but called this sexism “a good thing.” From the moment Casper walks into that prissy (read: female) trendy restaurant with an enormous dressed hog and “begins to carve out huge pink tenderloins with his chef’s knife,” Chef announces itself as a movie about masculinity, Charlotte Allen says.

“It’s about a man becoming a man.” All the big hearty slabs of meat on display are “alpha male food,” the kind of food men love to cook and eat.
Yes, there are plenty of scenes of Caspar carving up meat, slicing off hunks of it, whipping up inspired combinations of ingredients and sharing food, good times and near religious culinary reverie with male co-workers, his father-in-law, his son and even the movie’s antagonist, the male food writer who blasted him for his trendy LA restaurant inauthenticity. Caspar and his dudes get to scarf down food, chomp it loudly and smack their lips, with meat juices dripping off their fingers and the confectioner’s sugar from French Quarter beignets falling from their lips and chins.


Scarlett Johansson plays the hostess at the LA restaurant who has some kind of on-again, off-again flirtation/relationship with Favreau’s character. Vergara plays Caspar's rich ex-wife and mother of his adorable but neglected son. These two women strut into scenes, high heels clicking, cleavage heaving and smiling with a mix of exasperation but admiration and love. 

They also don’t eat – not much anyway. In a scene in a Cuban restaurant in Miami, Casper and his father-in-law go to town on the thick pulled pork and cheesy sandwiches; Caspar will adapt the recipe and sell it in his food truck. At that meal, Vergara sits by sweetly, picking at something on a plate that looks like a salad.

Once Casper gets his food truck up and running, and takes it to Miami, New Orleans and Austin, we get to see scenes of women – including women in bikinis – lining up at his truck to buy sandwiches. 

But in this film with so much pleasure in the rituals of preparing and eating food, there is really only one notable scene where a woman gets to put anything reaching basic-daily caloric requirements into her mouth. 

That’s in a scene where Caspar, iffy about having sex with Johannson’s hostess, stalls by whipping her up a beautiful bowl of pasta. (Incidentally, he uses a simple recipe that appears to incorporate olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes and Italian parsley – a recipe I myself have made).



Johannson is seeing writhing on the sofa as she accepts the bowl and takes a taste. But let’s consider the serving size he slips to her. It looks like a delicate forkful, probably a portion that’s no more than a half cup. It's a sensible and potentially calorie-reducing portion, depending on Johansson's daily caloric intake. 

And there is nothing wrong with portion control, right? But the film doesn't show Favreau applying anything so self-denying as portion control to his male characters, notably Caspar who's headed into obesity territory. If his Caspar was making that pasta for himself, I bet it would be a case of noodles runneth over, a heaping two cups with layers of olive oil and freshly shaved Parmesan melting in.

And, even after Caspar gets dissed by the food critic for gaining weight, the chef shows no signs throughout the movie of thinking – like the rest of us – well, OK, maybe I should cut back for my health or so that I’ll be more physically attractive the significant others in my life. In his case, these are the hot restaurant hostess and the still hot ex-wife.

In fact, he continues to eat and cook and eat and stay overweight – all while rocketing to new heights of artistic and professional success. And, he gets his beautiful ex-wife back.

Nothing wrong with a movie showing that physical beauty and BMI are trivial compared with other human qualities like kindness and integrity. But I doubt that any  movie – or any movie in Favreau's limited world view – could imagine such a story for a female character. 

Instead, Favreau's Caspar – unlike a female character – suffers absolutely no consequences for being overweight and unattractive or in displaying no self-control about how much food he consumes. 


I saw Chef shortly after watching the now famous episode of Louis CK’s FX series, in which he picks apart his own reluctance to go out on a date with a pretty, funny, vivacious woman who happens to be overweight. The episode juxtaposes overweight Louis ducking her flirtations with him binge eating with a male friend, the two shoveling in so much food that’s it’s sickening. But shovel they do, vowing the entire time they’ll hit the gym, lose weight and get in shape after this final food spree.

But they’re guys, and being overweight and ugly – like Favreau’s Caspar – shouldn’t hurt them in the getting-laid department, especially if they are rich and successful.

Louis CK has been paired with various skinny, attractive women on his show, but in this episode he seems to show an awareness – lacking in Favreau’s Chef – of the double-standard in the entertainment world and in society when it comes to women, food and body size.

And in this world, average or even below-average looking dudes get to hook up with skinny-busty model-esque women. And these women have to stay model-esque skinny by not eating the Cuban sandwiches, slabs of barbecue or delicate beignets that Chef Carl Caspar wouldn't bother to put in front of them in the first place. 

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Lol, what? Was it very hard mountaineering over that molehill?

Anonymous said...

Not every movie has to be about women, this movie was about a chef and his son, his wife was ancillary. Some things could have been done much differently, but criticizing it based on if it furthers your narrow cause is bullshit. You're like Anita sarkesian, there are real problems in the world, stop finding fake victimization in video games and movies. Not everything is about you.

Anonymous said...

Seriously, you bet IF he made pasta for his hypothetical self he'd eat more and somehow that's sexist. Jesus lady you are reaching hard.