Seeing “Chef”

chef_movie_stillsI’ve seen the movie Chef twice now. I’ll probably see it again and will buy it when it comes out in digital format. My first viewing was a surprise gift from my sons, and the second trip was with some of my staff. To say that this film resonated with me is an understatement. It touched me and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking on what it was about this film that moved me so much. Sure–I’m a chef, the movie is about a chef. The guy behind the scenes in the film is a great chef (much love to you Roy Choi) and there is plenty of “inside baseball” chef-talk peppered throughout the film. But these are surface-level things and can’t explain the deep connection I felt with the character played so well by John Favreau.

So what was it?

It was the honesty.

To get you to the point where I currently stand, you’ll need a little background on me. I am now a chef, but I haven’t always been. I spent most of my professional career as in investment banker (with short forays into cigar-making and lobbying). Frequently I made timid attempts to dip my toes into the chef world, but stayed in my profession with only dreams of being recognized by my peers as a “real” chef. I did charity cooking events, I took a few months off after a prolonged and painful divorce to play chef at a hunting lodge in Arkansas. I even taught private cooking lessons and wrote extensively about food for local, regional and national publications, but I never took the leap of faith into a hot professional kitchen. It took someone else to push me out of the safety of the nest. While watching (and talking back to) a Food Network show late one winter night, my wife Kitty turned to me, muted the TV and said, “Just do it. Just cook.” We turned off the TV and made a plan together. We would give it a year and tighten our belt. I would look for work as a professional chef, regardless of the cut in income. In my mid-forties I would finally break from the suit-and-tie world and seek work as a “real” cook. Shortly thereafter I was given the opportunity to exchange my skills for a paycheck, and I leapt in.

Five years later, I’ve come a long way. I own a restaurant where I get to cook what I want. I’ve been on the Food Network. I’ve cooked at the James Beard House and I’ve been fired by someone I greatly respect. I’ve cooked with and learned from the same chefs I used to envy for their jobs. I’ve jammed a lot into the past five years and all I can think about is how to soak up more of this wonderful experience. I still get a thrill every time someone calls me “chef.” It’s the most beautiful sound I can imagine.

So, how does all of this fit into my love for this low-budget indie film? Every emotion experienced and reflected by the character of Chef Carl Casper is fresh in my heart and head. To quote President Clinton, I felt his pain. When we see Carl planning a new menu, his enthusiasm is palpable and infectious. When he shares his vision with his crew, he is at once a teacher and a boss. And when he is denied the opportunity to put this creation on the menu by an owner who lacks vision, he is crushed, and we can feel the energy drain from his very soul. He wears it on his sleeve and soldiers on, even to his own demise.

His interaction with others also hits home. His total preoccupation with his work interferes with everything that should be important to him. When the divorced chef has some dad-and-me time with his son at a farmer’s market, he pays more attention to carrots and beet tops than to his own son. He is cordial but dismissive with his caring ex-wife, and he is so wrapped up in his food, that through it is the only way he knows how to connect (and even seduce) his inappropriate (at-work) girlfriend. He is focused on himself, his food, his vision and his ego. He is needy. Oh…how I can relate to this. My own mid-life career change has had a ripple effect on everyone around me, and I have to fight off the unrelenting urge to focus solely on a career that I fear will end too soon since it started so late. I want so badly for everyone in my dining room to love me so much that I forget that there is a whole house full of people who already do. I am needy.

After an honest pan review, a twitter war and a series of bad decisions, our onscreen hero finds himself standing in the middle of what used to be his dining room screaming at his nemesis critic and pleading on the verge of tears “I’m not needy! I’m not f*#%ing needy!” He yells it so loud because he is yelling at himself, desperately trying to convince himself the contrary of what he knows in his heart. He can play tough to his crew, he can scoff at critics to his peers, but he knows in his heart of hearts that every guest complaint, every snarky yelp comment, every returned dish and every bad review hits home. Every one of them hurts. When you put so much out there for the public to consume, you crave the acceptance and positive feedback. You want so badly to be lauded and recognized that when it goes all curly it catches you off guard and cuts you to the core.

In the film, this public meltdown is captured on countless smartphones and disseminated across the internet in nano-time and our hero is forced to humble himself. What we get to see is a true transformation. We see Chef Casper reconnect with everything that is truly important (family, friends and his true passion for food) as he makes a journey–both real and figurative–back to where he fell from grace. As he gets closer to the place of his fall, the resulting sting lessens, and by the end of the film…well, you should really see it for yourself.

I came out of the theater each time with damp cheeks and a renewed desire to make my mark on the culinary world. The fear of rejection is still there, but after watching this movie I think more about my family. I work terrible hours and they deserve a more engaged father and husband, and now I want to let them in more than ever. What can shield me from the slings and arrows of a fickle public is a stable, loving family. They know the real me and can hold me up when I want to crumble. They are the only audience that truly matters. Plus, they love my food.