Credibility is baked into Jon Favreau’s ‘Chef’
Most successful filmmakers don’t go back to school in the midst of their careers. But at 47, Jon Favreau decided that if he was going to get the smallest details right in “Chef” — and as any cook knows, the best dishes are defined by the littlest things — he had to learn a thing or two. So he called food truck maven Roy Choi, who enrolled Favreau in culinary school and then brought him in to work in Choi’s kitchens.
Before long, the “Iron Man” director was handling knives and plating dishes as if he had worn a chef’s coat for years.
Opening May 9, “Chef” is Favreau’s love letter to food and, more forcefully, the people who cook it. A foodie who is now prone to smoke his own briskets for 14 hours and is installing a wood-fired pizza oven in his remodeled kitchen, Favreau was forever trying to work a chef into one of his movies but couldn’t make the fit. “There’s something really authentic and sincere about cooking,” Favreau said. “And it looks really good on film.”
In “Chef,” which he wrote, directed and stars in, Favreau plays Carl Casper, a talented cook who has settled into turning out mediocre food that is no more daring than French onion soup, lobster risotto, frisée salad and chocolate lava cake. After Casper has a very public falling-out with the restaurant’s owner (Dustin Hoffman), he tries to reinvent himself not only as a chef but also as a parent, taking his young son on a culinary road trip as Casper teams with a loyal assistant (John Leguizamo) to launch a food truck specializing in pressed Cuban pork sandwiches.
As many chefs will tell you, when Hollywood tries to dish up a restaurant movie, the results are often about as appetizing as curdled custard: The few food movies that get it right — “Mostly Martha,” “Big Night,” “Eat Drink Man Woman” and even “Ratatouille” top most lists — are dwarfed by those that get it wrong, typically by making food preparation look too pretty.
After writing the script but before filming commenced, Favreau hired Choi — best known for his Kogi taco truck — as his food consultant. “And I told him, ‘If I’m going to do this, we really need to honor the craft and the code of cooking,’” Choi said.
They soon started talking about how a kitchen is run: It’s not as strict as the army, but there’s a military precision to its organization and chain of command. More important, chefs typically pursue cooking less as a career than as a calling. What matters most is the satisfaction on a diner’s face, and the joy of working with great ingredients. “When a chef sees a big bag of shallots, he’s excited that he gets to peel them and use them,” Favreau said. “That’s something I never thought of.”
After honing his knife and saucing skills in a weeklong culinary school crash-course — “You’re not coming into my kitchen until you’re trained,” Choi told him — Favreau spent a couple of months working alongside his mentor, starting with the most menial tasks. “I had him work an eight-hour shift, just prepping,” Choi said of an underling’s work preparing ingredients. “You can’t make a movie about a chef if you don’t understand what it is to be a cook.”
After he had chopped enough onions and peeled plenty of garlic, Favreau graduated to the line, where he cooked at Choi’s Chego!, Sunny Spot and inside a Kogi truck. In the finished film, almost all of the knife work is Favreau’s, and when he cooks his restaurant’s hostess (Scarlett Johansson) a home-cooked meal of spaghetti aglio et olio (garlic and oil), the actress is actually eating the filmmaker’s cooking.
As soon as the scene wrapped, though, Choi came in and tinkered with the dish for just a few seconds. “Scarlett took one bite,” Favreau said, “and her eyes rolled back in her head.”
And as for the chef’s coat Favreau graduated into, the filmmaker was taught early on: It’s proper to wear it in the kitchen, but if you wear it to shop at the farmer’s market, they will take it away. Forever.
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