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Movie 'Chef' undercooks hard reality of restaurant business

Jon Favreau plays Los Angeles restaurateur Casper in Chef, a fanciful take on the restaurant business.

Associated Press

Jon Favreau plays Los Angeles restaurateur Casper in Chef, a fanciful take on the restaurant business.

In the 23 years I've spent as a restaurant critic, I've played a cynical game with myself: How Many Months? As in, how long does this place have before the "for lease" sign goes up again out front? It's an easy industry to bet against: Most restaurants fail within the first two years. This is because diners are fickle, because restaurateurs are undercapitalized to begin with, because partners feud or someone gets sick.

But the biggest reason is because someone hasn't done their homework.

Much has been made of Jon Favreau's retreat from the big-budget action Iron Man franchise to direct, co-produce and star in the smaller, more personal Chef. In it, Favreau is chef Casper in a tony L.A. restaurant, brought to his knees by a bad review from critic Ramsey Michel (played by Oliver Platt in that annoying Hollywood way where restaurant critics storm into eateries and start making pronouncements tableside like sports commentators. Uh, legitimate food critics don't do that.).

Truth is, Chef is like Iron Man with food, not to be confused with Iron Chef even though its core messages are the same. Follow your bliss. Take the road less traveled. Build it and they will come. Just do it. Be your way. And so forth.

It's a fanciful movie (Sophia Vergara and Scarlett Johansson are both gaga over this slightly schlubby chef; the restaurant critic sells his blog to AOL for $10 million), so certain license should be forgiven. But as a lesson in entrepreneurship, it's dead wrong.

The critic, and chef Casper himself, are tired of the traditional kind of menu, have seen this all before. But hold up. The reason the chocolate lava cake has legs is because People. Like. To. Eat. It. Yes, it's a culinary cliché, like the crème brûlée before it, and thus not cutting-edge or exciting for someone in the kitchen to whip up day after day.

The difference between pushing the envelope and wadding the envelope up and flinging it is being attuned to what people want. The hubris lies in giving the public what they should want. Chef Casper wants to make Cuban food, even the charmingly wrong Miami-style Cuban sandwich sans Genoa salami. Fine. But what's the market for it? Is there a niche and where's the competition? Who are the customers and what prices and quirks will the market bear?

Aided by Twitter, Casper and crew start a Cuban food truck and drive across the country, landing in Los Angeles where Platt, brother to real-life restaurant critic Adam Platt, takes one bite of a Cuban sandwich and agrees to bankroll him on a brick-and-mortar restaurant (er, nice, but I'd be fired instantly for conflict of interest).

Casper gets the girl, but will his fledgling restaurant succeed? Hard to know, but to every would-be restaurateur buoyed by Favreau's message, I say that what separates a dream from a goal is market research.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.

Movie 'Chef' undercooks hard reality of restaurant business 06/06/14 [Last modified: Friday, June 6, 2014 6:50pm]
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