Jon Favreau has been around the movie biz long enough to understand the risk he’s taking by making a personal, small-budget movie.
“You live and die by your own means, your own talent, your own ability,” says the director of such blockbusters as Iron Man and Cowboys & Aliens. “It’s the difference between doing standup comedy and appearing in a comedy on stage. On stage, you have the rest of your cast to rely on. You have the script written for you, and you get to refine it over time. When you’re doing standup, you’re on stage alone, and either you kill or you bomb.”
Chefs understand this tricky high-wire act, too: They spend years in culinary training, months and weeks creating menus and perfecting their repertoire. But if the customer takes a bite of a new dish and doesn’t like it, their hopes fall like a poorly made soufflé.
Favreau accepted this vulnerable position — “I happily go on record saying that every decision is one I backed,” he says — to write, direct and star in Chef, a comedy about a chef at an upscale Los Angeles restaurant who loses his job and travels to Miami to start over with a food truck. As played by Favreau, Chef Carl Caspar is at a crossroads personally, too: Divorced, he’s consumed by work, neglecting his young son (Emjay Anthony) and disappointing his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara). Using food as the metaphorical glue, he tries to bind family and friends and his dreams back together.
The film, which opens Friday at area theaters, features lavish cooking sequences that culminate in luscious, mouth-watering meals. A self-proclaimed Top Chef addict — he appeared as a guest judge on season 11 — and a fan of such books as Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, Favreau knew he needed to stimulate his audience’s gustatory imagination.
“The thing that strikes me when I watch movies with food in them, like the opening of Eat Drink Man Woman or Jiro Dreams of Sushi, is that you get so you start to salivate,” he says. “You get hypnotized by the choreography of someone who’s really good with a knife or somebody who knows how to sauté. You’re not getting to eat the food, but somehow it’s not frustrating. . . . I really wanted to make people taste the food in this movie.”
To accomplish that, Chef pays great attention to the details of the professional kitchen and its wares — “so much of that has to do with sound effects and the way you photograph it,” explains Favreau — but the movie’s not-so-secret ingredient was the guidance of Roy Choi, who acted as much more than a consultant.
“He told me it was very important for him to present the world in an authentic way and that most Hollywood movies don’t get it right,” Favreau says. “He said, ‘If you get this right, I’ll do everything to make you prepared.’ He was there every day there was food on the set, which is unheard of.”
Choi helped Favreau with menus, offered notes on the script and brought Favreau to his restaurants for observation, talking him through each process. Favreau then headed off for basic culinary instruction, where he learned “knife cuts and sauces and demi-glaces and breaking down chickens and all that a student would learn under a traditional French training because he felt that was the background my character would have.”
From there, Choi took Favreau into his own kitchen — and that’s where the real work began.
“It’s completely different because it’s about coordination, choreography, communication, speed, precision, consistency,” Favreau remembers. “He started me prepping, and then I worked the line. It’s like teaching someone how to swim by throwing him off a boat. It’s exhausting, and it’s exhilarating, and you get the experience of being part of that energy.”
Favreau’s castmate John Leguizamo, who co-stars as one of Carl’s cooking partners, was also present for many of the culinary lessons.
“Cooking is such a fun thing to learn,” Leguizamo says. “It’s such a giving art form. It’s nurturing other people. There’s something beautifully altruistic about cooking. You feel that in the movie. It opened all of us up and made us a team, even with Emjay cooking in the food truck. It unites people.”
Despite his devotion to accuracy in recreating a chef’s world, Favreau was easy, even fun, to work with, Leguizamo says.
“He’s incredibly collaborative and incredibly generous. He loves improvisation, and he loves a great joke. He loves when you add something, and it adds to what you’re doing. It’s so great to see his face light up when that happens. Improv is an acquired taste. Some directors and writers don’t like it, unfortunately, but he does.”
Despite the number of professionally rendered meals on set, both seasoned actors tried to keep in mind the most important lesson about acting and food: Never bite off more than you can chew many, many times.
“I learned the hard way,” Leguizamo says, laughing. “In previous movies I would pick up something to eat and take a huge bite because I thought it was funny. Then all of a sudden I had to do 20 takes. You want to throw up. I learned you have to take small bites.”
“I’ve seen people keeping a bucket next to them during filming because they made that mistake,” Favreau says. That said, “Every single day there was food on the set, and that food was gone, either by the cameramen or the cast or the crew. No food went to waste.”
Chef arrives in theaters at a time when foodie culture is hot in America, with food trucks, food TV and food festivals thriving.
“My guess is that this is a day and age where everyone feels like they’re being watched on social media,” Favreau says. “People are raising children and looking after them more closely. Kids wear bicycle helmets — it’s much different than when we grew up. It’s a safer world, and so people find ways to express themselves in a more wholesome way. I think food is one area where everybody can relate and indulge themselves and have fun in a way that’s socially acceptable. . . . There’s still a sense that there is a decadence and a passion to it.”
And even though his intense training is over, Favreau doesn’t expect his interest in cooking to wane. He’s obsessed currently with recreating simple recipes, like the way Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas, smokes its brisket with only salt and pepper and still manages to infuse the meat with such marvelous flavors.
“I’m trying to learn the subtlety of that or cooking a rib eye on an 800-degree grill and understanding how to move it around and get it off in time,” he says. “I’ve just scratched the surface of it, but it’s exciting and fun enough that it makes you want to try different things, and you get to share the experience with your family and friends.
“And when you do, everybody jumps in. It’s like holidays — there are people you have a hard time having a 15-minute conversation with, but you can cook all day with them and have a ball.”