Let’s get this one right out on the table: The only way a gone-to-seed, middle-aged, frumpy chef like the one played by Jon Favreau in the movie “Chef” is going to hook up with both Sofia Vergara AND Scarlett Johansson in one lifetime is in his dreams.

And I’m not just saying that because I’m a middle-aged woman who looks nothing like Sofia Vergara or Scarlett Johansson.

The two Portland chefs who watched the movie with me last week agreed. I invited them along to a screening, luring them with the promise of popcorn and yogurt-covered pretzels, so I could hear firsthand what parts ring true for a real chef and what just seems like Friday’s fish dressed up for Monday’s menu.

While relationships forged in restaurant kitchens tend to be messy and “incestuous,” they both said, it’s unlikely that a chef like Carl Casper, Favreau’s character, would find a glammed-up, brunette Scarlett Johansson stretched languidly across his sofa like Cleopatra while he makes her a bowl of pasta.

The movie’s got the incestuous part covered: Johansson plays Molly, the hostess at Casper’s restaurant. But the sultry look on her face that says she could eat Favreau alive is pure Hollywood.

“Yeah, that’s not happening,” said an amused David Connolly with a little snort. Usually staff relationships involve behavior that’s “really drunk and sloppy.”

But Connolly, executive chef at the Old Port Sea Grill & Raw Bar on Commercial Street, and his wife, Francesca Bowman, who is pastry chef at the restaurant, also found a lot to like in the film, an uplifting story about a chef who loses his passion for his work and ends up finding it again on a food truck. A secondary plot follows his efforts to reconnect with his son, inexplicably named Percy.

“They really did their research, because a lot of the things I can relate to, for sure,” Connolly said.

Connolly and Bowman have never worked in food trucks, but they have spent plenty of time in high-end restaurant kitchens like the one the movie chef works in, only they were in Chicago and Boston.

Connolly was the sous chef at MK in Chicago, where he met his mentor, Todd Stein, and ran the cafe for almost three years. He then moved on to Spiaggia, where he became chef Tony Mantuano’s sous chef and cooked for the future POTUS and FLOTUS, Barack and Michelle Obama. (President Obama’s favorite dish: scallops with guanciale and cannellini beans.)

Bowman, who has worked in restaurant kitchens since she was a teenager, had left Portland for Italy by the time she was a young adult. There she studied baking and pastry arts at Apicius in Florence. She worked for Boston chef Barbara Lynch at No. 9 Park before moving on to Spiaggia to develop the restaurant’s first bread program. That’s where she and Connolly met.

They moved back to Portland four years ago to settle down and start a family (they have a 2-year-old daughter).

“Chef” opens with Carl Casper chopping away in the kitchen while his staff stumbles in one by one after a night of apparent drinking and debauchery, barely making it in time for their shifts. They use foul language and sport the obligatory bad tattoos. This, apparently, is spot on.

“That’s a big thing in kitchen culture,” Connolly said. “They’re always out all night and then they work all day, especially in Chicago.”

There are exceptions. At No. 9 Park, the staff worked a 14-hour day, then gathered in the kitchen after the dinner shift to evaluate the service. Lynch provided lots of beer, but no one could touch it until the day’s assessment was over.

“But by the time we were done, you were ready to go home and sleep,” Bowman said. “She built a team. That was her strong suit. She knows how to build a team and she keeps people with her for years.”


The chefs were less than impressed with Favreau’s knife skills, which is interesting since the actor received several weeks of formal training in the restaurants of Los Angeles chef Roy Choi, the man behind the Kogi BBQ trucks. (Stay past the credits to see a short bit showing Choi teaching Favreau how to make the perfect grilled cheese. Choi’s painstaking care with the simple sandwich borders on overkill. You want to laugh, but then realize how much you’d like to sink your teeth into it yourself.)

Connolly and Bowman pointed out that whenever Favreau was chopping vegetables, “stuff was shooting out everywhere.”

“I think the close-up shots – that was somebody else’s hands,” Bowman said.

The plot almost immediately jumps into Casper’s simmering feud with his boss, played by Dustin Hoffman. Casper has learned that a very important food critic is coming that night to review the restaurant, and he wants to ditch a tired old menu that ends with a slice of molten lava cake in favor of a brand new tasting menu created on the spot.

Hoffman’s character insists, however, on staying the course. He wants Casper to be a culinary Mick Jagger, playing a sure-fire hit like “Satisfaction,” not helmet-clad Daft Punk playing their latest remix. The boss wins the argument, of course, and when the food critic played by Oliver Platt digs in, it provides him with the raw ingredients for a scathing review.

What follows is a Twitter war. Clumsy Casper, who knows nothing about social media, sends Platt a retaliatory tweet he assumes is private, but of course it goes flying all over the world. Without giving away too many details, let’s just say this gets Casper in trouble again with his boss (who unhelpfully implores him to “be an artist on your own time.”)

Battles with the boss are not uncommon in real life – restaurant owners can be afraid of change – but being a good chef means keeping up with the times.

“Sometimes, you just have to stand your ground,” Connolly said, “and it might cost you your job.”

In the film, Casper moves on – at the urging of his ex-wife, played by Vergara, who seems to be recycling her role on “Modern Family” – to a food truck called El Jefe that makes cubanos. This is a magical food truck. It can park wherever the hell it wants, for as long as it wants (obviously El Jefe never came to Portland) and child labor laws do not apply, because Percy, who can’t be more than 10 or 12, comes along to help cook and school his dad in the details of social media.

Although our real-life chefs have never worked on a food truck themselves, they say the movie downplayed the amount of work that goes into running one.

“They don’t really show you that they need to prep somewhere,” Connolly said. “Sometimes those guys have to find a kitchen somewhere to prep, and it’s more time that they’re spending on the truck. By the time you’re done with that day, it’s a lot of work.”

But they got other things right. Like the cornstarch scene.

Ladies, in case you weren’t aware, when guys are in hot and humid environments, it helps them to toss a little cornstarch down into their, um, nether regions. A lot. Kind of like baby powder. Apparently, this is well known in restaurant kitchens.

“I thought the cornstarch part was kind of hilarious because it’s very true,” Bowman said. “I’ve had times when somebody’s mistakenly ordered a case of cornstarch, and it’s like, ‘I’ll just stick it in the guys’ bathroom.’ ”


With the help of his son and his food truck, chef Casper manages to get his groove back.

Our chefs said it can be easy to lose the passion for cooking, like Casper, if chefs don’t stay current through research and reading. It’s also important to surround yourself with others who share in the excitement of learning new techniques and creating new dishes.

That’s one reason Donnelly keeps in regular touch with his mentor and other former colleagues, such as David Beran, who is now the executive chef at Next, one of Grant Achatz’s Chicago restaurants. (At Spiaggia, Bowman said, her husband was known as “the food encyclopedia.”)

Connolly pointed to a scene in the movie where Percy burns a Cuban sandwich and is going to serve it to a customer anyway. His father, chef Casper, gives him a look of horror and profound disappointment, as if the boy has just declared his intention to scald a puppy in the fryolator. That’s the kind of passion a chef should have, Connolly said.

Cooking professionally is not as glamorous as it’s made out to be on the Food Network, but too many people go into it caring more about becoming the next Aarón Sánchez than how well they can make a Cuban sandwich.

“It’s not all about that,” Connolly said. “There’s more to it. There’s a feeling you get when you cook. I feel like I want to put my heart into it and make sure it’s the best piece of fish I cook, or it’s the best sear I put on it.”

If the Portland chefs had their own food trucks, Bowman said hers would serve crepes since they are appropriate for breakfast, lunch or dinner, and she would develop a gluten-free line. Connolly, who grew up in southern Spain, said he would do something Spanish, maybe some fideo soup or bocadillos made with baguettes and spiced meats.

And if their stories were to be made into a movie, who would play them? They both drew blanks, until Connolly came up with a suggestion for his wife: “Jennifer Lopez?”

“Oh, cut it out,” Bowman replied. (Turns out a beer delivery guy, complimenting her on her new bangs, told her she looks like Jennifer Lopez.)

And for Connolly? “I would have Will Ferrell for you or something because you’re kind of goofy,” Bowman said.

Connolly said he was thinking more along the lines of Brad Pitt. And Angelina Jolie could play Bowman.

“OK, then I’ll say Brad Pitt,” Bowman said. “You’re my Brad Pitt.”

Awww. Somebody pass the sugar.