For a movie that’s centered on the effort to construct an innovative new restaurant menu, “Le Chef” is made up of some pretty stale ingredients. That’s not to say that it doesn’t provide a few amusing incidental moments. Overall, though, it’s a fairly formulaic affair that piles up the clichés so thick by the end that it pretty much collapses under the weight.
Jean Reno is Alexandre Lagarde, the renowned chef of the three-star Cargo Lagarde in Paris, famous not only for his cuisine but for his cookbooks and television program. But young, profit-oriented Stanslas (Julien Boisselier) has recently assumed oversight of the restaurant from his father Paul (Pierre Vernier), the wealthy owner who’s moved into a retirement home. And he pressures Alexandre not only to allow him to modernize the place, but to create a new menu that will satisfy critics looking for something more innovative than Lagarde’s been serving—especially the current fad for molecular gastronomy. When Alexandre resists, Stanislas points out that if the restaurant loses a star in the upcoming guide, their contract will allow him to fire Lagarde. And he undertakes to sabotage the chef’s chances by transferring core staff and cutting off his usual food suppliers.
Enter Jacky Bonnot (Michael Youn), an eager fellow who’s trained himself on Lagarde’s books but can’t hold a job because of his fanaticism about being true to them: he insists on serving dishes more meat-and-potatoes customers don’t like, and instructing them loudly about what wine goes with them. Repeatedly fired as a result, he finds himself forced by his pregnant girlfriend Beatrice (Raphaelle Agogue) to take a maintenance job at the very old folks’ home where Paul lives. Inevitably he helps the likably goofy kitchen staff there to cook Lagarde cuisine for the residents, and when Alexandre visits, he discovers Jacky’s talent and invites him to take the position of his second-in-command.
From that point things proceed rather predictably, though writer-director Daniel Cohen and his fellow scribe Olivier Dazat toss lots of subplots into the mixing bowl. One involves the fact that Jacky keeps his change of employment from Beatrice, who’s demanding that he become responsible (and can’t stand liars besides). Another has to do with Alexandre’s daughter, who’s resentful that she’s always played second fiddle to his work and is expecting him to attend her dissertation defense, which is scheduled for the very day the critics are expected at the restaurant.
But most of the hilarity is supposed to spring from Alexandre and Jacky’s attempt to get along while constructing a menu that will retain the restaurant’s third star. The chemistry between the two actors isn’t really explosive, but mostly their relationship is genial enough. The situations they’re put into, on the other hand, are distinctly hit-and-miss. An episode in which they invite Juan (Santiago Segura), a master of molecular cuisine, to teach them the technique, is fairly amusing. On the other hand, the sequence in which the two disguise themselves as Japanese diplomats to spy on the dishes at the fashionable place run by Cyril Boss (James Gerard), the chef Stanislas us eying as Alexandre’s replacement, is cringe-worthy in its ethnic tastelessness.
Of course, “Le chef” winds up with Alexandre and Jacky getting everything they want but still bickering, and Stanislas getting his comeuppance. Except for that Japanese sequence, Reno ambles though his part amiably, but Youn’s dippy, wide-eyed turn gets tedious after pretty quickly. The rest of the cast gets by, though no one stands out among them. Some of the best work, in fact, comes from the technical crew. Production designer Hugues Tissandier and cinematographer Robert Fraisse make the film very easy on the eye, and composer Nicola Piovani has confected an upbeat score that’s often more enjoyable than the action it’s commenting on. On the other hand, even while trimming the picture down to a mere eighty minutes, Geraldine Retif’s editing can’t keep it from feeling padded.
The result is a cinematic meal that goes down fairly easily, but isn’t tasty enough to be memorable.