Jon Favreau didn’t have a big advertising budget to promote his independent film “Chef.” So to keep it in the conversation months after its May release, the director and actor turned to one of its stars: the Cuban sandwich.
After earlier pop-ups inspired by the film’s Cuban food truck El Jefe, Favreau was at it again Tuesday night demonstrating how to cook the film’s centerpiece dish at a DVD release party at the Sunset Tower Hotel on the Sunset Strip.
Flanked by his culinary coach Roy Choi, a chef who knows his way around a food truck, Favreau described how to construct the gooey sandwich with the care and cadence of a Food Network host.
“Three slices of pork, two slices of ham, supermarket Swiss cheese, two pickles, mustard from end-to-end, butter on top and then Lipitor,” the “Iron Man” filmmaker said over a pair of portable gas stoves used to crisp sheets of braised pork. “It’s not an everyday meal.”
In the film, the sandwich symbolizes the rebirth of forlorn chef Carl Casper, played by Favreau. Undone by years of uninspiring cooking and a meltdown for the ages after a bad restaurant review, Casper goes on a cross-country journey to recapture his mojo and reconnect with his son Percy, played by 11-year-old Emjay Anthony, who diligently dished out Favreau’s sandwiches at Tuesday’s event.
The independently financed $11-million film has received critical praise and an admirable showing at the box office, grossing more than $31 million in domestic receipts and $14 million abroad, according to boxofficemojo.com. The DVD will be available Tuesday from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.
Part of the appeal for viewers, Favreau said, was getting the details right in the kitchen. If chefs found the scenes credible, so would moviegoers, the director reckoned.
“I’ve learned you’ve got to play to the base first,” Favreau said. “With ‘Iron Man’ you needed the Marvel fans, the comic book fans first. Hollywood’s always said, don’t worry about that small audience, go for the broad audience. But I’ve always found that if you go for the details — the real restaurants we ate at, or in ‘Swingers’ we drove on the real streets and hung out at the real bars — that it’s easier to expand the film out from that to a wider audience. But if you lose the people who are experts about the thing the movie’s about, the movie never feels genuine.”
Choi is the binder of the film’s authenticity — the roux to Favreau’s special sauce. After agreeing to consult on the project, he put the director through culinary boot camp and explained how to hold a spoon like a chef and how to tie an apron like a pro.
“He really honored who we were,” Choi said of Favreau’s character — all while tinkering with the gas stoves and pressing down on the Cuban sandwiches with a baking sheet. (There weren’t any sandwich presses available at the hotel’s poolside terrace where the DVD party was held.)
Favreau said he wrote the script before he ever heard of Choi, though the film appears to follow some of Choi’s real-life narrative. The two are now close friends. Choi taught Favreau how to whip up kimchi fried rice. Favreau is the first guest on Choi’s new show on CNN Digital, “Street Food.”
“I would consider him a friend for life,” said Choi, who, in addition to the Kogi food trucks that made him an international food star, also runs the restaurants A-Frame, Chego! and Sunny Spot as well as the food and beverage operations at Koreatown’s high-end Line Hotel, which has two new Choi restaurants, Pot and Commissary.
Favreau revealed during the demo that he’s trying to persuade Choi to open a Cuban sandwich restaurant, but then joked that Choi was likely to be too busy because he already has “11" restaurants.
Even so, Favreau, who is now cooking more at home, has Choi on speed dial for recipe tips. And he said Choi was indispensable, along with actors Anthony and John Leguizamo, in promoting “Chef.”
“The film needed it,” Favreau said. "It was fighting in the summer with big movies with tremendous advertising and we were very much an underdog.”