Parisian Jacky Bonnot (Youn) just can’t seem to catch a break. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of French gastronomy, a discerning palate that can ferret out an offending spice that’s holding back a dish from greatness, and not surprisingly, he can’t keep a job to save his life. Too much of a perfectionist, he won’t serve food that doesn’t pass his demanding scruples, much to the dismay of customers, managers, and restaurant owners alike. But this behavior can’t continue, for Jacky’s beautiful girlfriend (Agogué) is expecting their baby any day now, so he takes whatever gig he can get, and if that means painting the exterior of a senior center, then ainsi soit-il! Not being able to help himself, he’s soon giving the center’s cooks lessons in preparing fish from the scaffolding. Suffice to say, he doesn’t last very long.
Over at Cargo Lagarde, a Michelin three-starred restaurant, Alexandre Lagarde (Reno) is beleaguered by his own problems. A famous chef and bestselling author (a running joke that wears out its welcome has passersby constantly asking him random cooking questions), Lagarde is facing off against a CEO who has hatched a scheme to fire Lagarde so he can bring in a younger chef skilled in the trendy food science of molecular gastronomy. Jacky and Lagarde meet cute and eventually team up, Lagarde hiring Jacky as his sous chef, and Jacky helping Lagarde revitalize his menu. Thus, an odd couple is established, the inextricable wheels of destiny turn, and a light and breezy French farce is born.
Le Chef is practically bursting with good-natured bonhomie. Nothing is really at stake here, except perhaps the loss of audience interest as plot points arrive from miles away. Youn simultaneously channels Roberto Benigni, a young Steve Martin, and oddly, Paul Reiser (whom I thought I had completely stricken from my memory), and it’s nice to see Reno – known more to international audiences for his gritty, action-oriented characters – right at home in a comedic role. The film gently lampoons aspects of contemporary culinary trends, such as absurd entrées (free-range chicken ice cubes) and TV cooking shows. The few missteps the story takes, such as a scene where the duo dress up in Kabuki theatre garb to spy on a rival restaurant, are overcome by the sheer gameness of the cast (but really, that scene is pretty terrible). And any film that has a subplot that involves the defense of a thesis on Russian fantastic literature is okay by me. Le Chef isn’t breaking any cinematic barriers here, but sometimes leaving the theatre with a smile on your face is haut satisfaction enough.