Chef begins in the heart of Delhi’s chaat heaven with the sight of a young lad enjoying a crisp, piping hot aloo tikki. Its tangy, spicy flavour leaves such a deep impression on the Chandni Chowk inhabitant’s taste buds he decides to run away from home and seek the secrets of culinary arts.
In the next scene, the boy is a disgruntled head chef of a New York Eatery, a position he’s about to lose for socking a customer’s jaw for criticising his cooking.
Despite the dubious turn of events, it’s essential we believe Roshan Kalra is a burned-out kitchen whiz who has seen better days and Michelin stars.
Played by Saif Ali Khan — an actor not far from this narrative — Roshan acquires a sympathetic air and touching authenticity in his quiet contemplations of achieving a professional breakthrough.
To shake off the sudden slump, Roshan makes a trip to India, more specifically Kochi, where his ex-wife (Padmapriya Janakiraman) and pubescent son (Svar Kamble) reside. They aren’t the only ones. His complicated family man status quo extends to his father, still sore about his ‘bawarchi’ aspirations.
There’s a natural awkwardness to Roshan’s early interactions with his former missus and offspring. It’s as though he’s overcompensating for his long absences by trying too hard.
‘You’re funny,’ his son observes.
‘No, just middle-aged.’
Chef uses Saif’s quickness for pithy wit with flair.
Even after the film slips into rom-com space and an irresistible rival in the shape of Milind Soman pops up to threaten his place, Saif goes easy on his boyish imagery, retaining it just enough to look back at his Dil Chahta Hai days with grace and glee.
There’s a laidback vibe to Raja Krishna Menon’s remake of Jon Favreau’s scrumptious indie fairy tale that lays more focus on the father-son bonding than the adventures of a food truck start-up.
Devoid of schmaltz and distasteful stereotypes, their affection grows over time as they bond against the backwaters of Kerala, the Golden Temple in Amritsar and Goa’s hotspots discovering an appetite for idiyappams, tomato chutney and poi.What I liked most here is its willingness to allow these characters to gently savour this renewed intimacy.
Saif is an easy fit for the chilled-out dad as is Svar Kamble in his breezy portrayal of an easy-going, regular kid. But the unruly mop of Mowgli hair he’s made to sport doesn’t do justice to his simple charm.
As his mum, Padmapriya Janakiraman, reminiscent of a young Nandita Das, looks more equipped than her well-meaning supporting role allows her to be. Chandan Roy Sanyal’s contribution as Roshan’s cheerful sidekick adds its share of optimism to the cosy picture.
Chef beams in the genial aura of these sweet, grounded people, their earnest interactions and humble successes. The frames capture their gorgeous homes, vivid moods and photogenic travels with the enthusiasm of a fertile Instagram account.
The songs by Raghu Dixit lilt in joie de vivre.
Yet for all the promise it holds, Chef never really becomes the comfort food for the soul or eyes.
In a premise begging for food porn, there’s a shocking scarcity of sensory pleasure or vision. You’ll see more gastronomic delights in the two-minute trailer of the original Chef than in this entire movie.
Saif slices onions, shops for pumpkin, douses fettuccine in garlic infused olive oil, dribbles over chhole bhature and insists quesadilla, he calls it rottza, is his invention. But his love for the medium is scarcely and plainly demonstrated in Chef’s frustratingly distant look into the gifts of cooking.
As if the lacklustre choice of dishes isn’t disappointing enough, the camera won’t even allow me a decent look at the chutney in making.
Thankfully, there’s Milind Soman — short of appearing on a plate, the ridiculously good-looking hunk does everything in his power to make up for its lack of yumminess.
Chef’s journey is about realising the importance of doing what one wants over what one needs and amusing in the nature of creativity in the age of social media. But in this droopily written scrap-of-life and far-from-faithful recreation, we never get a sense of what’s eating Roshan Kalra.
Grown up angst is a valid and neglected aspect of our storytelling. Except Menon’s digressing exploration of it feels more dull than delicious.