The first half of Chef is delightful. The second half is repetitive, with remarkably low stakes for the main character.
Writer-director Raja Krishna Menon’s official adaptation of Jon Favreau’s 2014 film Chef relocates the story first to New York, and then to India. Roshan (Saif Ali Khan) is a lauded but temperamental chef working in a fancy restaurant in New York City who loses his job when he punches a dissatisfied customer. His coworker Vinnie (Sobhita Dhulipala) suggests that Roshan’s uninspired cooking of late might be reinvigorated by a trip to Kerala to visit his pre-teen son Ary (Svar Kamble) and his ex-wife Radha (Padmapriya) in the city of Kochi.
After many years away from his son, Roshan is delighted to find that Ary is as much of a foodie as Roshan was at the same age. He takes the boy up to Delhi for a tour of his childhood haunts in his neighborhood of Chandni Chowk, including an uncomfortable reunion with his own estranged father (Ram Gopal Bajaj), who disapproves of Roshan’s career choice.
Back in Kochi, Radha enlists her rich, handsome boyfriend Biju (Milind Soman) to make Roshan an offer designed to keep him in India: a ramshackle double-decker bus to refurbish into a food truck. Roshan gets over his initial insult, seeing instead an opportunity to work on the project with Ary and strenghten their relationship. Still, Roshan longs to restore his reputation and reap the financial rewards of a triumphant return to New York.
As one would hope from a movie so titled, there is a lot of tantalizing food on display in Chef. A mouth-watering sequence in which Roshan cooks tomato chutney is alone worth the price of admission. It’s part of a strong first half which takes its time introducing the characters and their relationships, leaving enough room for the camera to linger on some gorgeous grub.
There’s a moment where it seems as though Chef is going to delve into anti-capitalism, with friends of Radha’s mentioning Che Guevara and Vinnie referring to Roshan’s New York loft as a “middle-class trap.” But after that, the importance of money in Roshan’s life seems more a matter of convenience. It’s very important when he needs to give Ary an excuse for why he must return to New York, less so when Roshan explains to Ary the work ethic he learned as a poor apprentice cook in Delhi. Money is readily available for the duo’s impromptu Delhi trip or to dress up the food truck to the nines.
In Chef’s second half, the action slows down and scenes repeat themselves. It becomes increasingly clear that Roshan isn’t going to face any real consequences for his previously neglectful behavior (or for his desire to once again physically distance himself from his son). Radha and Ary are only ever annoyed with Roshan for a few minutes, forgiving him as soon as he whips up something tasty by way of apology.
Roshan himself is in constant need of validation, whether he’s seeking praise for his cooking or showing off one of the many other skills he’s mastered, from dancing to guitar playing. It’s presumably borne out of his own truncated childhood, having run away from home at fifteen to escape his father’s enmity. Still, it’s odd that no one is willing to even challenge Roshan’s attention-seeking behavior, let alone demand that he behave like a grownup and get over himself.
Roshan’s childish streak makes it hard to sympathize with the way he parents Ary, who’s hardly allowed to have an emotional reaction at all before Roshan corrects him. Invariably, Ary responds with a glum, “I’m sorry, Papa,” prompting Roshan to tickle him as they both laugh. Despite a likeable performance by young Svar Kamble, Ary never feels like a real person.
The same can be said for Roshan and Radha. Khan and Padmapriya are good in their respective roles, but the characters are written with such limited emotional ranges that the story feels incomplete. Likewise, supporting characters like Vinnie, Biju, and Roshan’s dad don’t seem to exist outside of the main plot, only materializing when Roshan needs something.
Chef falls short of what could have been, especially considering how well it starts. Nevertheless, those in the mood for food porn will find plenty to savor.