Jon Favreau’s Chef (2014) is a light concoction about cooking, fatherhood and success via a food truck. Raja Menon’s official remake, also called Chef, is an enormous buffet about cooking, fatherhood and success via a food truck with family values, romantic rivalry, daddy issues and a Raghu Dixit soundtrack thrown in.
The needlessly extended running length of Menon’s Chef often threatens to derail it, but the conversational humour, tourism video-worthy visuals, and likable characters and performances keep the movie on course. Chef keeps dishing out one scene after another, but Menon ensures that his basic ingredients are solid and flavourful enough to begin with.
Most of the battle is won by the casting: Saif Ali Khan is perfect as the bad-tempered chef who rediscovers his love for cooking, and Svar Kamble makes a remarkable debut as his sweet-natured son.
Some key changes have been made to the original. In the Hollywood movie, directed by and starring Jon Favreau, a bad review and a misunderstanding of the reach of social media prompt the lead character to hurl down his apron and set up a food truck. In the Hindi version, New York chef Roshan Kalra (Khan) reacts with outrage when a customer criticises his food, and is fired when he berates his staff rather than admit to his mistake.
Roshan’s sudden unemployment is the perfect excuse for him to visit his ex-wife Radha (Padmapriya) and son Armaan (Svar Kamble) in Kochi. Roshan starts to bond again with his son, but he is disturbed by the fact that Radha seems to have a boyfriend. Since the boyfriend, Biju, is played by Milind Soman, and has a massive house, an elephant in the front yard, a collection of vintage cars, and the ability to carry off a lungi, Roshan has serious reason to be worried.
Roshan’s chance at redemption – a dilapidated double decker bus that he converts into a mobile restaurant – comes with the added incentive of spending more time with Armaan. Roshan’s loyal assistant Nazrul (Chandan Roy Sanyal) drops his New York job and hops along for the ride, as does an eccentric driver (Dinesh P Nair).
There are plenty of close-ups of food preparations and mini-recipes on display, with the “rotzza” (a pizza wrapped in a roti) standing in for the Cuban sandwiches in the original. The warm and colourful palette and air-brushed views of various locations are proof that nobody is taking the complaint against Roshan that he has “built upper middle class traps” seriously.
The main dish here is the father-son relationship, but with an extra topping. The screenplay, by Menon, Shah and Suresh Nair, throws in daddy issues for Roshan – his father (Ram Gopal Bajaj) detested the idea of a chef for a son. This somewhat explains Roshan’s sense of pride, since he is a self-made man who has risen up from cleaning tables at an Amritsar dhaba to Michelin-star status in New York.
What is less clear is the reason for Roshan and Radha’s break-up. His obsession with his profession barely works as a reason – by that measure, nearly all Indian marriages would end up in a divorce court. The comfort between the exes as well as father and son means that Radha gets little to do. She remains a gorgeous prop, sportingly getting out of the way as Armaan grows closer to Roshan and refusing to protest when Biju seemingly vanishes from the scene. Menon’s casting of a south Indian actor to play a Malayali character is a bold move, but the talented Padmapriya isn’t called upon to do much more than flash her lovely smile and exit on cue.
The heavy lifting is left to Saif Ali Khan, and he is in top form. Khan’s ability to portray suave and urbane characters with strongly etched personalities makes him a shoo-in for the role, but the actor isn’t merely picking up a pay cheque here as he sometimes has the tendency to. Khan delivers one of the most winning performances of his career, diving deep into Roshan’s motivations and needs and balancing the charm offensive with the defensiveness.
Roshan’s encounter with Biju, and the realisation that he has fallen behind in the looks department, is one of the movie’s most hilarious sequences. Khan plays the scene with the right touch of righteous indignation. Roshan knows when he is licked, but since he is a master chef, he also knows what his next move needs to be. The knives come out, as do the smiles.