There’s not a lot new about David Kaplan’s “Today’s Special” – yet this comedy, from a script by Aasif Mandvi and Jonathan Bines, finds ways to take an old formula and give it new life. Think of it as a familiar recipe whipped up with different spices.
And that’s all the food metaphors or puns for this review of a movie about a chef who learns a little something about how to cook.
The chef is Samir (Mandvi), a sous chef at a hot Manhattan restaurant. He’s the right-hand man to his famous boss, Steve (Dean Winters), and we see early on how Steve relies on him, while taking the credit for his kitchen wizardry. So Samir fully expects to be made the top chef at Steve’s new restaurant when it opens.
When he’s passed over, however, Samir precipitously quits, announcing that he’s going to Paris to apprentice himself to the great chefs of Europe. When he returns, he figures, doors will open.
But even as he arrives at his father’s Indian restaurant in Queens to break the news to his parents, his father (Harish Patel) suffers a heart attack. So it falls to Samir to fill in running the modest eatery until he can find someone to take over, so Samir can head for Europe.
Just one catch: With all of his sophisticated culinary training, Samir has never learned to cook Indian cuisine. When he has a falling out with the restaurant’s belligerent cook, he first tries to fill orders by getting take-out from another Indian restaurant. Eventually, however, he remembers a taxi driver, Akbar (Naseeruddin Shah), who gave Samir his card one night after telling him he used to cook for Indira Gandhi.
Akbar turns out to be not only a superior cook but a kitchen philosopher, patient teacher and fount of anecdotes. Even as he revives the restaurant’s fortunes with his cooking, Akbar is also helping Samir get in touch with his own culture and to loosen up a little, to cook from the heart as much as the head – to let his cooking express his soul and not just his technique.
That’s an old trope: the snobbish know-it-all youngster who learns valuable life lessons from the humble elder (“You have much to learn, young grasshopper”). And this one doesn’t stray far from the blueprint, throwing in a domineering father, an unexpected love interest and a deus ex machina that comes down from the heavens to change all of Samir’s plans, just when he thought he had run out of options.
But Mandvi and cowriter Bines also know how to write witty lines, to keep funny moments popping. They’re fairly shameless about it, roping in a trio of Indian seniors (who are Samir’s uncles and habitués of the restaurant) and the marital squabbles between Samir’s explosive father and his sharp-witted mother (Madhur Jaffrey).
Ultimately, however, “Today’s Special” is about the food and learning to appreciate something you’ve had in front of you your whole life. Mandvi gives a performance that is modulated between frustration, exasperation, hauteur and warmth. He is nicely matched with Jess Weixler, as a young chef at his old job who becomes his romantic interest. And they’re both upstaged by such lions of the Indian acting coterie as Jaffrey, Shah and Patel.
“Today’s Special” is undemanding without being insulting, a movie that provides new laughs in familiar settings. You’ll want a plate full of samosas and curry when it’s over, but it’s a workably feel-good movie in its own right.