There’s really only a few things that need to be said of French film Le Chef (strangely titled Comme Un Chef in the film’s opening title sequence). Firstly, it’s French. Yes, obvious point is obvious but it’s still relevant – I only counted one instance of a spelling/grammar mistake in the subtitles! Secondly, it’s a comedy, passing the Kermodean test of eliciting laughter a minimum of six times. And last but not least, as a French film it of course has elements of a romance struggling to woo throughout.
Now, the plot: Jean Reno is famous chef Alexandre Lagarde, owner of his self-titled three-star restaurant ‘Cargo Lagarde’ which is in danger of losing a prized star. It seems he lacks inspiration, his traditionalism besieged by the popularity of molecular gastronomy (or ‘cooking by chemists’ as I like to call it). Increasingly frustrated, Lagarde is given an ultimatum: impress with his new Spring menu or face losing the restaurant to a cocky newcomer.
How fortunate it is then that Lagarde has a chance encounter with Jacky Bonnot (Michaël Youn), a self-taught culinary whiz who can’t keep a job because of his haute cuisine. He’s simply too good and too much of a perfectionist for local bars and fast food restaurants. When Lagarde meets him however, Jacky is working as a painter because his partner is pregnant and he must do something – anything – to provide a stable income. Impressed by Jacky’s skills and imagination, Lagarde grants him a once in a lifetime offer of toiling under him. Unsurprisingly, Jacky accepts. There’s a tiny bit of a hitch though, since he absolutely cannot tell his pregnant not-yet-wife that he quit his job for an unpaid trial.
It’s this last plot point that was my primary issue with the film. Jacky’s ‘secret’ is awfully contrived and felt as if it was only there because it was somehow required. Worse, it intrudes on more interesting scenes of Jacky and Lagarde butting heads over a recipe or infiltrating rival restaurants in disguise. You just know that at some stage Jacky will be found out (oh no!) and that the lovebirds will have an inevitable falling out (no way!). But they’re in love so it can’t last (duh!). The pair expectedly hug and kiss to get things back on track just in time for Jacky to regear for the film’s salivating finale. It’s cheap, ponderous storytelling that annoys the more I think about it.
Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not bad or offensive – just frustrating. Yet despite my misgivings, the whole thing remains oddly pleasant. Writer-director Daniel Cohen is competent, creating a story that evokes that warm and fuzzy feeling that only French films can give. What pulls it all together though is Jean Reno, clearly benefiting from his comedic work opposite Steve Martin in the Pink Panther films. His droopy, puppy dog-ish face and prominent nose compliment a fine performance as the immensely likeable, driven and sometimes grumpy Lagarde. Just don’t tell him to hold off on the chives.
Le Chef adds a healthy dose of humour to a story with wide appeal that has Jean Reno as a traditional chef in desperate need of inspiration, though the romance subplot could be done without.