The Cuban Shuffle of Carl Casper
by Jennifer Lyu
In the film, Chef (2014) directed by Jon Favreau, Carl Casper (shown on the right above) plays the lead character that loses his head chef position at Galouise restaurant in California and starts his own food truck business selling traditional Cuban food. The scene above occurs in Miami inside the once dilapidated food truck that becomes refurbished by Carl and his son, Percy (shown in the middle). Carl’s friend Martin (shown on the left) turns down his promotion at the restaurant to work with Carl in the food truck. In this scene Carl and Martin just prepared some traditional Cuban roasted pork as part of the cubano, a traditional Cuban sandwich made also with ham, Swiss cheese, and mustard wedged between two pieces of buttered-down Cuban bread. Ultimately, the shift in food from the delicate American cuisines in Galouise to the traditional food truck cubanos that Carl prepares reflects a parallel shift in the values Carl possesses throughout the film. Essentially, the restaurant cuisines portray his deep concern for his self-image and reputation, whereas the cubanos take him back to his roots: he begins to prioritize his life and see the true value of friendship and family.
The scene shown above encapsulates excitement and eagerness from the three characters as Carl delicately slices through the cubano pork. All eyes are fixated to ensure that the perfect size is extracted to quench their taste buds. The anticipation builds, and when the meat finally reaches their mouths, their eyes close and there is a collective longing for more. The deliciousness of the pork begins to run through all three of their veins and ultimately creates not only a connection between the pork and the individual, but also a communal link between the three characters that unites their friendship.
In contrast, this sense of stirring excitement and anticipation is absent during Carl’s time in the restaurant. At Galouise, Carl prepares the same dishes routinely and there is no room for self-expression or deviation from the original menu that Riva, Carl’s boss, enforces. As a result, when the ordinary food is presented in front of the food critic, Ramsey, there is no look of enthusiasm or fervor on his face like that of Carl, Percy, and Martin’s in the scene depicted above. Thus, the lack of spontaneity and zeal in Carl’s cooking at the restaurant reflects a limitation for Carl to express himself and instead illustrates a subordinate side of him that obeys every task he is instructed to do in order to maintain his reputation as head chef and keep the business going.
Consequently, as Carl continues to devote a majority of his time and efforts into his work, he expresses minimal care and affection towards his son. His disregard towards his son is shown through his perfunctory conversations with Percy and his constant tardiness when picking Percy up from school. Essentially, Carl’s superficial relationship with his son reflects a similar superficiality that Carl possesses with his restaurant cuisines. The restaurant food fails to bring about a sense of intrinsic gratification and pleasure within Carl and instead the food becomes the product of his obligation to serve his boss and the business. Similarly, through Carl’s eyes, the time he spends with Percy is seen more as an obligation of his fatherhood than an act of authenticity.
Carl’s relationship with his son improves as Carl begins to cook his traditional Cuban food with Percy alongside him. Carl teaches Percy how to make the cubanos and through his teachings, Carl is not only getting back in touch with his own roots and culture, but he is also passing down Cuban traditions to his son. Additionally, the unrepressed atmosphere of the food truck permits Carl to cook the cubanos by any method he desires, creating room for self-expression and creativity. Cooking is no longer an obligation, but an enjoyment. Furthermore, the cubanos themselves represent simplicity and nourishment. The simple ingredients of the cubanos are ultimately part of this simple lifestyle of living day to day in the food truck and the happiness that is ignited through this simplicity. On the other hand, the cubanos also reflect the nourishment and mutual sustenance of Carl and Percy’s relationship. The food truck journey from New Orleans to Austin, Texas provides Carl the opportunity to develop a deeper and more meaningful relationship with his son through extended conversations and attentive listening to his son’s thoughts and ideas. Through these experiences, Carl soon learns to prioritize and value the simpler aspects of his life, such as his family and friends, as well as appreciate the Cuban culture and traditions that make up his own identity.
Chef. Dir. Jon Favreau. Perf. Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, Sofia Vergara. Open Road Films, 2014. DVD.