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Movie Review

'Chef': An Appetite for Life

Savor this tasty tale of a cook who takes his act on the road

Rating: R

RunningTime: 1 hour, 55 minutes

Stars: Emjay Anthony, Bobby Cannavale, Robert Downey Jr., Jon Favreau, Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson, John Leguizamo, Oliver Platt, Amy Sedaris, Sofia Vergara

Director: Jon Favreau

A friendly word of advice before you see Chef, the delicious new film from Jon Favreau: Eat before the movie.

Otherwise, as you feast your eyes on the procession of mouthwatering dishes that play important supporting roles in Chef, your stomach may growl to the annoyance of your seatmates.

Also, even if you go to a four-star restaurant later, the masterly presentations you've just watched on-screen will make your own dinner seem like uncooked hot dogs on a paper plate.

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Jon Favreau and John Leguziamo star in Chef.

Jon Favreau (left) and John Leguziamo star in "Chef." — Open Road Films

Favreau — who wrote, directed and stars — plays Carl Casper, a middle-aged chef at a high-end Los Angeles restaurant who finds himself choking creatively. His boss (Dustin Hoffman), obsessed with the bottom line, insists that chef Carl cook the same tired dishes he's been preparing for years, even when the city's toughest restaurant critic (Oliver Platt) announces he's dropping by.

Of course, the night is a disaster, prompting Carl to return to his roots: He heads for Miami, where, through the good graces of his ex-wife (Modern Family's Sofia Vergara) and another of her ex-husbands (Robert Downey Jr., in a hilariously quirky cameo), Carl opens a food truck and starts making the same Cuban sandwiches that hooked him on the chef biz in the first place.

Crucially, Carl also reconnects with his young son, Percy (adorable, wide-eyed Emjay Anthony of TV's Rake). Father, son and assistant chef Martin (John Leguizamo) embark on a cross-country odyssey to relocate the food truck to the West Coast.

Tasty gastronomical pit stops punctuate the journey, enabling the lads to round out the food truck's menu with New Orleans beignets and Austin barbecue. Thanks to Carl's culinary genius and Percy's Twitter skills, the truck has a national following by the time they hit L.A.

Did I just ladle up the entire plot? No matter; the story, charming as it is, serves largely as a buffet table on which Favreau spreads a feast of dishes, the preparation of which we witness from first chop to final garnish. Much of the credit for Chef's success must go to cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau, who finds ways to transform even a Cuban sandwich into a Bon Appétit magazine cover come to life.

In fact, Chef can take its place at the table alongside the great movies about food, among them Big Night, Babette's Feast and Chocolat.

For Favreau (Swingers, Elf, Iron Man), Chef is a labor of love. His large cast — which also includes Bobby Cannavale, Scarlett Johansson and Amy Sedaris — clearly shares his passion for the subject, but none more so than one real-life chef, who's shown during the film's closing credits coaching Favreau on how to make the best grilled-cheese sandwich you've ever seen.

"None of this is here," he tells Favreau, gesturing to the rest of the kitchen — and, perhaps, to the outside world. Forming blinders with his hands, the chef focuses his eyes on the sizzling sandwich: "This is all there is."

Ironically, in the course of Chef our hero discovers there's more to life than food. And we, in turn, learn there's a lot more to a grilled-cheese sandwich than two slices of Wonder Bread and a Kraft single.

Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media.

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