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Biting into the fantasy

Film and food trucks rev up our primal urges
By BRIAN DUFF  |  July 10, 2014


BOYS ON THE SIDE Favreau seeks fulfillment in his mainstream foodie film Chef. 

Is it a sign of the shallowness of our national culture that we have spent half a decade excited by the idea of food served from trucks? Sure. But is it a symptom of some deeper condition? I suspect so. This summer offers a chance to investigate thanks to the arrival of a critical mass of food trucks around Portland, along with the film Chef, about a restaurant chef who starts a food truck.

The film, like many of the trucks, arrived in late May. Chef continues to hang around in theaters, thanks to generating good word-of-mouth as a heartwarming comedy. In truth its appeal lies deeper: in soothing our deepest apprehensions about adulthood. The food trucks here in Portland offer a tangible experience of the same reassuring escape into childhood.

Chef is directed by Jon Favreau, who launched his career by writing and starring in Swingers (1996) before going on to direct blockbusters like the Iron Man films. Chef supposedly marks his return to smarter, more adult material. But in fact the film’s themes and obsessions indicate a regression—into infantile anxieties about helplessness, poop, breasts, and the difficulty of achieving adult autonomy.

In Swingers, men chased women with hapless obsession, in the manner of preteen boys. In the new film, women are not among Carl Casper’s problems. Despite his schlubby appearance and lack of confidence, Hollywood’s two leading curvy beauties (Sofía Vergara and Scarlett Johansson) portray women who care for and nurture him with uncritical warmth and ample cleavage. Boys may chase girls, but infants just lie there chubby and helpless expecting a voluptuous woman to care for them and occasionally put a breast in their face. Chef Casper lives the same way.

Little boys often like trucks, and Chef Casper gets his own by giving up on adult autonomy. At the start of the film he appears to be a model of good authority. But though he has the words El Jefé (the boss) prominently tattooed on his knuckles, and he leads an admiring kitchen staff, Chef Casper turns out to be unbosslike. A prominent food blogger’s visit to his fancy L.A. restaurant prompts an argument between the chef, who wants to cook something inspired and new, and the restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman) who wants to serve the chef’s standby “greatest hits.” And though the owner ultimately agrees to let the chef decide since “it’s his kitchen,” Casper does it the owner’s way. Denying his moment of cowardice for the rest of the film, he insists repeatedly that he had no choice.

The resulting vicious review prompts a childish tantrum that goes viral. “You are not getting to me!” he screams, like a little kid who has been gotten to. He quits petulantly, is abandoned by his supposedly loyal staff (a betrayal quickly forgiven, like kids after a fight), and goes crawling to his ex-wife (Vergara) for help. His redemption begins when a food truck is gifted to him by a more successful man, who also delivers a pep talk designed to ward off infantile fears of the abject: “You are not a turd,” he reassures Chef Casper.

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