Chef: Food and the Meanings It Generates

Discourses are ways of thinking, speaking, and writing that both reflect and create our beliefs about the world and our social identities. Discourses include the storylines (narratives) that circulate through a culture. We share discourses with other people which permits us to share ideas of how the world works.

The postmodern and post structural schools of thought view discourses as patterns of public and private language that reflect and also construct patterns of meaning.

In the film Chef (2014), the production, sale, and consumption of food play an important discursive role. The film has been analysed using the discourse analysis method.


The food production in the film is a discourse for forming various types of bonds that the protagonist (Carl) has. Food is a discourse for the training of a young boy into the workings of a food truck and the values of cooking and serving, here the protagonist is a parent and enforcer of discipline and norms. The production of food in the restaurant kitchen serves as a discourse for camaraderie and bonding between the protagonist and the other cooks in the kitchen, while maintaining an informal hierarchy. Food also serves as a discourse of nutrition: At the Farmers Market, Carl explains to his son that the kettle corn is junk food and there is fresh fruit available, thus reinforcing the distinction between junk and healthy food habits. However, there is a conflict between enforcing healthy food habits as a responsible role model and trying to rebuild an affectionate relationship with his son- like when he buys the beignets with his son in New Orleans that is a significant symbol of their bond. The food item, in this case the beignets, become a symbol of affection that reinforce familial bonds.

Authentic vs. Global food products

Food presented, sold, and consumed in the film has been divided into authentic and global. Authentic as being original and indigenous, easy to prepare and popular among people; it represents a ‘return to the roots’ for Carl as a chef personally and professionally. The change in the food styles are representative of a change in his attitude. The presentation of food in the food truck focuses on the ingredients and providing customers with food: it is a casual exchange. 

The presentation of food in the restaurant is elegant, formal, and well-crafted. It has a certain ‘snob’ value attached to the whole production and consumption of food; this represents Global food products. Food also represents a group of people who consume it: the food truck caters to people who do not care much for presentation and the visual qualities of the food but for the content and the taste, while the restaurant food is consumed by people of a social class that has the cultural and economic capital to access food that is more expensive, where presentation is of top priority; this food has more of a global/multicultural cuisine and audience.


Building identities

Through the discourse of food, different identities are maintained by the protagonist. The production of food serves as a vocation for the protagonist as he feels he touches people’s lives through food and it is important to him. Thus, food is a metaphor for bonding with people; it is a medium of social interaction. The production of food and the road trip with the food truck represent a way of redemption for the protagonist; thus food operates as a discourse for finding one’s self.

Gender constructs

The discourse of the ‘macho’ man is very explicit throughout the film. The kitchen largely has male chefs/cooks; their conversations are considered ‘manly’ and contain sexual references. The scene when the protagonist confronts the food critic in the restaurant which leads to a public brawl is a very loud and angry confrontation that attracts a lot of attention, which represents a display of assertion of power with the use of expletives. The world of the professional kitchen and the informal food trucks are largely constructed to be the domain of the macho man, with the women providing support in and out of these discourses. The female characters in the film are the guardians of morality, maintaining the institution of family and are more ‘nurturing’; they also help balance the protagonist’s tempers. The protagonist has to be reminded by his ex-wife and girlfriend to pay more attention to his son, thus portraying men as only mindful of their careers and themselves, who ignore familial roles and duties ascribed by society.

Subject positions

Through the sale, consumption and production of food, Carl takes up different subjectivities or subject positions that are determined by the discourse he operates in:  He is a high-end restaurant chef who later becomes a food truck chef, while maintaining his superiority in the hierarchy in both situations; Carl is a father who is trying to rebuild his relationship with his son; He is an ex-husband who has maintained friendly relations with his ex-wife, who ultimately influences him to start a food truck; He is also a subordinate to the restaurant owner who doesn’t encourage his creative side; He is a friend to his fellow cooks in the kitchen who encourage him, one of them joins him in his food truck; He is also an internet sensation due to a video of him going viral, that both negatively and positively affect him. Carl is a professional chef who despises the food critic in the film: this scrap he has with the food critic is a major storyline that determines the rest of the protagonist’s journey. Hence each subject position affects the other.

This analysis is influenced by John Coveney’s book (Chapter 9) which uses a Foucauldian framework of analysing Food and the meanings it generates.

Vedika Inamdar