Death of the Critic

Anatomy of a Scene - Chef

Written by: Tom Blaich


Sensuality is a difficult thing to portray. Making a man like Jon Favreau sexy is only adds onto the challenge. He falls well outside the lines of “conventional” good looks, especially those of Hollywood’s masculine ideals. But the scene where he cooks for Scarlett Johansson in his apartment is as sexy as any we’ve seen. It combines light and playful shots with loving attention to detail to bring you a veritable feast for the senses: aural, visual, and more, as you can almost smell and taste the pasta that he makes for her. It is a scene about simplicity in many ways, in the midst of a turning point for his character, foreshadowing the rest of the film, and perfectly encapsulating his passion as a chef.

Spaghetti Aglio e Olio is an amazing dish, and much of that comes from how simple it is. Like many of Italy’s great dishes, it is about simply preparing good ingredients in a way that makes them delicious. You have to treat every component properly because there are so few there, but done properly it becomes something entirely more than what you put in the pan.

You start by gently sautéing thinly sliced garlic in a pan with olive oil. You want it to become soft, sweet, and aromatic, losing the acrid bitterness of raw garlic. As it softens, you add a small amount of red pepper flakes and pepper, letting them sauté in the oil, infusing it with more flavor. After the oil is warm, flavorful, and filling the kitchen with its delicious smells, you add freshly cooked spaghetti and a bit of the cloudy, starchy cooking water, tossing it all together to combine and emulsify into creamy and delicious sauce. Toss with fresh minced Italian parsley for color and bright herbal flavors and season to taste with salt.

It is five ingredients: garlic, olive oil, spaghetti, parsley, and red pepper flakes, and takes no more than ten minutes to cook, but somehow when you put it on a plate at the end, it has become more than the sum of it’s parts. Like any great recipe, by putting everything together, you create a delicious dish greater than you could have imagined at the beginning.

You can easily follow along with the scene and make the dish yourself, and more importantly, you want to. When the scene is over you are hungry, and you want to try to make the dish that he just did. Through this scene, we see Favreau, the hairy, overweight, and brash man transform into something else. The way Johansson looks at him, slightly sitting up in bed, her shirt slipping down one shoulder as her neck is exposed, is undoubtably provocative. She looks like a model, hell, she is a model, and she lounges in Favreau’s bed, with the purest form of desire written on her face. It is a hunger for both for the dish, and for him.

In the background, we hear The Specials’ “Rudy A Message to You” as made by Grant Rhabao and Carlton Livingston. “Stop your running around / Better think of your future / Time you straightened right out / Creatin’ problems in town.”
Chef is a movie about a man following his dreams, about becoming a better father and breaking out of the rut that he has found himself in. He clearly cares about Johansson, and this scene of tenderness shows the kind of man that he can become.

Cooking makes him happy. We see it all over the movie, but this scene is amazing at it. When he hands her the plate and walks back into the kitchen, he keeps watching her. Watching as her eyes light up, as she lets out an almost sultry sigh of satisfaction at the meal he made for her. Everyone in the audience knows that they just had sex, but is there a better metaphor than him cooking a beautiful plate of food for her and her moaning while she eats it? It isn’t exactly subtle, but it works oh so well.

It is just such a sensual scene from start to finish. The camera alternates between shots of him and top down shots of the pan he is cooking in. It keeps our attention on the food, which is bright, colorful, and active. Oil bubbles, pasta glistens, and garlic browns as we watch, half cooking show, half seduction. Intercut are shots of Johansson looking on lustily, part audience analogue for how we feel about the meal, but at the same time, part of the visual buffet as well. She is all legs and neck, dressed messily as she casually reclines in his bed.

Then there is Favreau, who becomes more and more attractive as we watch him work on the dish, fingers graceful dancing over the dish, wielding knife and spoon to bring the food to life. It is innocent and yet erotic at the same time, a sensory overload as we try to imagine what everything smells and feels and tastes like. It evokes a desire not unlike a scene of steamy sex, but instead of grinding bodies, it is slowly cooking food, the audience becoming the ultimate voyeur.

The dish is so intoxicating because it is so simple, much like the Cuban sandwich he spends much of the movie making. Favreau wears a simple grey t-shirt, and Johansson is clad in an oversized black shirt. The apartment is small, kitchen and bedroom crammed together, covered in cooking implements and food. It isn’t fancy, standing in sharp contrast to the heart, octopus, steak, salsas, pig, and sauces he spends the first half of the movie making. What is so captivating is that this five dollar dish shows us that simplicity is sometimes preferable to pomp. It pushes the focus on the two characters and the food, almost a character in its own right.

Nothing is said. Nothing needs to be said. Show, don’t tell. We are shown passion and dedication through one of the unifying human experiences. Food.



Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

You Might Also Like:
Anatomy of a Scene - The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Anatomy of a Scene - Sicario

Anatomy of a Scene - No Country for Old Men

blog comments powered by Disqus