Le Chef is one of the few foreign films that won’t feel very foreign to American audiences, which is ironic since Le Chef is a comedy, which is a genre that doesn’t usually transfer well internationally. Yet, this film manages to offer everything audiences would come to expect from a film like this: main characters with tangible story arcs, subplots that wrap up tidily, and conventional comedy that doesn’t rely on base subject matter, like pain or bodily functions. Le Chef is simply a good, clean and lean comedy. In fact, it might be a little too lean, but it’s still pleasant to look at.
Alexandre Lagarde (Jean Reno) is an aging, but renowned chef whose menu is conventional and traditional. His restaurant group, however, wants to replace him with a younger chef who can bring the restaurant into the present with exciting dishes. Fortunately, Alexandre is under contract and the only way he can be removed is if he loses a star when his restaurant is next visited by food critics. To guarantee the loss of a star, the CEO of the restaurant group (Julien Boisselier) lures Alexandre’s assistants away to head their own restaurants. Desperate for help, Alexandre stumbles across Jacky Bonnot (Michaël Youn), who is a young, amateur chef and who idolizes Alexandre. The two join forces, risking everything to take on a new style of cooking, save Alexandre’s position and give Jacky a career of a lifetime.
There’s an almost indescribable nostalgia to the comedy in Le Chef. The experience is almost like watching an American comedy from the 90’s or early 2000’s. There’s a predictable flow to the plot and characters all serve their limited purpose. So when new characters are introduced, it’s easy to see how they’re going to affect the film. Academically, this predictability seems like it would take away from the enjoyment, but, practically, audiences watch these films because of a particular formula, and they expect that formula to be adhered to. Fortunately, there are percentages of tolerance within any formula, allowing Le Chef a little leeway in how it goes about resolving necessary plot points.
Also hearkening back to a former style of comedy is Le Chef’s unfazed manner of doing comedy that modern Americans might consider gauche. At one point, two white male characters infiltrate a competitor’s restaurant dressed as Japanese people – one of them female. So not only are they doing yellowface, but femaleface? There was a time in America when this kind of comedy was tolerated and enjoyed provided that it wasn’t mean-spirited. Le Chef achieves that balance. Granted, offense can be found by those who seek it, but that’s true of anything.
The biggest issue with the film is that it is overly pared down. There’s almost no backstory to any of the characters. Audiences understand that Jacky longs to be a professional fine dining chef, but where did he learn his skills? Why is he obsessed with Alexandre? Why does his girlfriend (Raphaëlle Agogué) even like him since she comes from an ostensibly wealthy family and Jacky has trouble holding down a job? There are other questions with ancillary characters, like Alexandre’s daughter (Salomé Stévenin), but the characters all speak to each other as if the audience already has the answers to these questions and others, which makes it seem like there was much more to this film that viewers won’t get to see. This is a shame, really, because all of the characters are fun to watch and adorably quirky in their own ways and adding another 30 minutes to the runtime to get to know these characters even better would have been a pleasant experience.
Finally, Jean Reno and Michaël Youn have good chemistry together and their scenes have enough texture to give audiences a sense of direction in their relationship and in the overall film. While they do have a fun, combative interaction, they don’t quite reach the heights of The Odd Couple or any of the other great conflicting couples, instead opting for something a little more subdued. Still, they carry the film and comedy capably.
Le Chef is a good, solid movie. It’s humorous, well-acted and well-written. There aren’t any surprises here, but, on the other hand, audiences will get everything they’re expecting.