I recently watched a sly little movie on DVD called Chef (2014), starring writer/director/actor John Favreau, that really brings home the perils of sacrificing engagement for practicality, and which demonstrates how things can begin turning around when you start following your heart.
For you movie buffs, you’ll remember Favreau from his debut in Swingers (1996), a humorous portrait of young wannabe-actors (including a very young, thin Vince Vaughn) immersed in LA’s stylish, neo-lounge scene. In Chef, by contrast, Favreau couldn’t be farther from a swinging, 20-something hipster. Here, we find him in the role of 40-ish Carl Casper, a 5-star chef commanding the kitchen of a high-end, Southern California restaurant. Overweight, divorced and high-strung, the imperious Carl is at the beck and call of his obstinate restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman), a business man who insists “Chef” serve up a bland, conservative, culinary fare that will satisfy the hungry, well-paying masses – at the expense of Carl’s waning creative promise.
To complicate matters, Carl has a son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), who lives with his mother, Inez (the luminous Sofia Vergara). Percy wants nothing more than to spend quality time with his father, but Chef is too busy for family time – heck, he’s got bills to pay, meals to plan, and battles to fight – most especially with a bellicose restaurant critic (Oliver Platt). A needy, 12-year-old boy just doesn’t fit into the picture of Carl’s frantic, “me-focused” life.
Carl is clearly at a crossroads, with only a fraction of his six human needs being met. As you’ll recall, these six human needs are as follows:
2. Uncertainty/Variety & Change
5. Growth and Expansion
6. Contribution Beyond the Self
In many ways, Carl has traded in the other five human requirements for need for #1: certainty and safety. And isn’t this the choice we all make in our work lives at some point or another? A steady paycheck is a good thing, right! For Carl, however, it’s not nearly enough to make him happy. Rather, he’s bored, angry, short-tempered, and regarding life through a self-focused lens– because that’s how things look when you’re living outside your personal authenticity, radiating catabolic (negative/contracting) energy. The world, for Carl, is black and white — everyone is his enemy — and the universe revolves entirely around his own problems, with little or no space for anything or anyone else.
What happens next in Chef is really quite wonderful. Rather than caving in to his own fears for security, Carl winds up moving to Miami where, via a series of serpentine plot twists that I don’t want to spoil for you, he finds himself running a gourmet food truck serving Cuban comfort food. Best of all, his son Percy comes along with him for the ride. One of the joys of watching Chef is observing how Carl comes back to life again, both emotionally and creatively. Step by step, he starts fulfilling those other 5 needs, namely:
• Uncertainty/Variety & Change: Every day is a new adventure for Carl – driving across country, creating new dishes, and experimenting with social media.
• Significance: The food truck patrons love his food and recognize Carl for the artist that he truly is.
• Connection/Love: As his energy becomes more and more anabolic (positive/expanding), Carl rediscovers his relationship with Percy. He now has the ease and clarity to turn his attention beyond his own ego, making space for his son (and perhaps his ex-wife).
• Growth and Expansion: Talk about new challenges! Carl has to fix up a beat-up old food truck, source authentic ingredients, concoct enticing new menus AND train his son to work the griddle.
• Contribution Beyond the Self: For the first time in years, Chef has a sense of purpose – to create great food that delights his customers and perhaps changes their lives for the better.
I give the movie Chef two thumbs up. It’s fiction, to be sure, but I think the film speaks to broader, more universal themes. We don’t have to settle. We don’t have to say, “This is fine; this is good enough; I’m okay just making ends meet in my dead-end job.” With our six human needs as a guiding star, we can step into a life that respects our desire for stability, yes, but is full to bursting with variety, recognition, love, growth and giving. It just takes a bit of that old out-of the-food-truck thinking!