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Jon Favreau on the Cinematic Restaurant World of Chef

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Photo: Michael Buckner/Getty

Writer/director/actor Jon Favreau's latest film, Chef, premiered over the weekend at SXSW in Austin, Texas. Eater Austin editor Meghan McCarron sat down with Favreau to talk about the restaurant world as it's depicted in the movie as well as Favreau's training with LA chef/food truck king Roy Choi. Favreau discusses the parallels between the food world and the film industry, how the internet has helped restaurants, the difference between restaurant critics and film critics, and how chocolate lava cake became the movie's shorthand for an out-of-touch restaurant. According to Favreau, when preparing for the film, chefs warned him to "'Get it right.' I got the sense that they're not satisfied with a lot of the stuff that's out there that depicts life in the kitchen." Below, Favreau in his own words.

How did you first get to know Roy Choi?
I knew him but I tasted the Kogi Truck on the set of Iron Man 2. Gwyneth Paltrow, who's always keeping her antennas up for cool, new stuff in the food world, she had brought the Kogi Truck that people had barely heard of and couldn't find, but somehow the truck just showed up on the set and fed the crew.

The crew isn't necessarily the most adventurous bunch of eaters, but everybody loved it. I had never eaten short ribs before then. Everything was amazing. It was one of those things where no matter what I tried, it was good and not one of those things I would have ordered had I been in the restaurant. It served the purpose, it opened my mind and we thought it was great, and thought of it again for years.

I wrote the script because I wanted it to be about a guy whose life was not doing well. He didn't know how bad it was and he had slowly, over years, ignored the important things and I see that very much in the film business. There's a lot of parallels with the food business, but the food business is I think more cinematic and relatable and more blue collar. Nobody cares about people making a movie but if you watch Eat Drink Man Woman, how that opens, I could watch that for two hours. Or Jiro Dreams Of Sushi. It's just extremely cinematic and everybody loves watching it, and everybody could relate to [it]. I think it's a little bit of a wishful film and an aspirational thing going on. Everybody would love to be a magician in the kitchen.

Now, it's such a masculine, rockstar thing too. Ever since I read Kitchen Confidential, I saw a little light bulb go off. Being a chef is like being on a pirate ship, it's not like Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? or whatever my impression was as I was growing up.

[Photo: Merrick Morton, Courtesy of Open Road Films]

Why food?
For me, I love food. It's my greatest pleasure and also the thing that could ruin you as well. It's one of those things where, if you're not thoughtful about it, it could be unhealthy. But if there's a mindfulness about it, it actually is a wonderful tool of emotional expression. It's a great way to show affection for somebody, to make guests feel appreciated and welcome, and everybody has very deep emotional connections to the food that they grew up with or the smells of the neighborhood they grew up in. I'm from an Italian and a Jewish family, so to both sides it's always been … It's been cultural currency and each tradition has its own similar experience.

I've been in the service industry, I've bar-tended, I've waited tables and I've worked at pizza places, I've made pizza. I've had a lot of jobs and many of them were in the food service industry.

How much of the stuff in the movie was from your own kitchen experiences?
Not all. Really none at all. It was all for dramatic effect. Some of it came from anecdotes of the countless books written by chefs about, not memoirs, but from the chef authors I've read.

Like when John Leguizamo signed on to do the part, I got him to read Kitchen Confidential. I said, "Start with this one." There's a scene in the movie, we're sprinkling cornstarch on our nuts, that was a suggestion that John Leguizamo said, "We should have a scene with cornstarch" because he had read the book. I said, "Yeah, yeah, so Bourdain talks about putting cornstarch in your balls." It ends up being a real laugh.

Chocolate lava cake. If he's doing a menu that's not relevant, he's still playing the hits from the '90s.

What's nice is people who aren't chefs are like, "What the hell are they doing?" The minute the container is brought into frame, the chefs know, "Oh, that's cornstarch." It's one of those where the audience … I like when different members of the audience have a different experience. Like if you speak Spanish, you get some of the jokes, too. If you are a chef, you'd understand when he leads off, what the menu's going to be, you get a groan. That came from [when] we were doing Top Chef. I was talking to Tom [Colicchio] and Gail [Simmons] about what I was doing, and they both said chocolate lava cake, that's the one if he's doing a menu that's not relevant, and if he's still playing the hits from the '90s. You want to go for something that was cool and edgy then but has outlived its relevance but is still a crowd pleaser, and that seemed to be the one dish that everybody agreed was emblematic of it.

Have you ever had a meal like that, where you go out to eat and you get that chocolate lava cake and you're just completely dismayed? Are you that kind of eater?
No, no, I'm not at all. That was what was so difficult, because I honestly like when food is user-friendly, you know what I mean? I'm not a snob by any stretch. As a matter of fact, it's more of a chance for me to be adventurous. I wanted to do it because my eyes had been open by Roy and the chefs I've worked with, and it's made the experience better and I can tell the difference between good and bad.

But the fact of the matter is, I more come from a layman's view of eating out. I will say, however, since I've had the experience of eating Roy's cooking and other chefs cooking for Roy … Like we went to Emeril's restaurant on the way back from filming Top Chef. I got to sit next to Roy as Emeril just crushed him at the chef's table in the back, there was not one thing I wouldn't eat or try. That was one of the best meals of my life. Now I try to open myself up to those new experiences.

[Photo: Merrick Morton, Courtesy of Open Road Films]

So making this movie changed your perspective on food?
For sure. It made me much more mindful of it. I find that when you prepare food and all the steps that go into it, the actual eating of the food is only one small fraction of the experience of it. It's the alchemy that's so fascinating to watch somebody else do. Then when you can learn some of the techniques that they have and it's appreciated by people who you're feeding it to, it's a tremendous experience.

Now I'm putting a commercial kitchen into my house and I want to continue my learning, and I'm really sad now that I don't have Roy on the set everyday telling me what to do. We did a little cooking demo here, that was so fun for me, but I really like the experience of just turning everything off other than being of service to the kitchen that I was working in.

Especially at my age now, you really appreciate that. You appreciate learning so much. When you're in college, it's the last thing you want to do. Now, I'm well into my 40s and all I want to do is learn, especially if it's something you're curious about, like when you're working with people who are so good at what they do, and so passionate. Everybody said the same thing, "Get it right." I got the sense that they're not satisfied with a lot of the stuff that's out there that depicts life in the kitchen.

Is there an example of something where Roy was like, "No, no, no, you can't do it this way, you have to do it this way." What's one thing you feel like you guys got right?
It happened so many times. One of the things was, in my original script I was going to the farmers' market in my chef's coat. He took a big, red pen to that one. He said, "There's no way you would ever be seen out of your kitchen in your chef's coat." I was smelling the products and he was like, "Chef is not Belle in Beauty and the Beast, dancing through the farmers' market." He said, "You go in there, you find what you need and you get it. You're passionate about it."

Chef is not Belle in Beauty and the Beast, dancing through the farmers' market.

What's also funny is even though there's a gruffness and a crassness to kitchen staff, they're food nerds. They can be talking about who they want to sleep with in one breath and then in the next breath they're marveling at the ramps. That dichotomy was so entertaining to me. I hope to have captured it.

There's also a huge Latino flavor to the kitchen which I don't know is ever really depicted accurately. I went back to reading Bourdain's book. He's like, "A good line cook is extremely valuable, and the best ones are of Latin heritage and that's part of their culture." I see how Roy interacts with his kitchen staff and Roy speaks Spanish and there's not a lot of English. When I was training in Roy's kitchen, I was the one speaking the second language, so I had to learn a lot.

Why did you decide that you were going to be the one to play the chef?
I don't know. I think it's personal, something I can convincingly play. I don't know that I could be convincing as a quarterback at this point of my life or a boxer, so that was cool. Selfishly, it was something I really wanted to learn. I cooked a little bit in my first movie, I did a movie called Made. For the little kid in the movie, I do a scene where I'm preparing a pasta puttanesca.

I always loved watching that scene. There was a certain power to the subtext of that scene that you could tell that he cared for the daughter, because it starts with the mom. Famke Janssen plays her real mom, who gives her a tea sandwich and the little kid says, "You know, I hate you. You just eat it." Then I say, "Hey, give me that. Let me make you something good."

It becomes like a little bit of a lesson as he's talking, as he's cooking this dish for the kid. It was a very efficient and wonderful little bonding moment. I think that was probably in the back of my head when I went to make a story about a father reconnecting with his son who he hadn't spent time with and didn't really know anymore. The son just wanting to spend time with the father. How often the passing down of a skill or an apprenticeship is the way men pass affection down to the next generation. Dads don't cuddle with their sons like moms do. A lot of it is through doing a task together, whether it was weeding the yard or scraping the bottom of a boat: Even if I hated it, it was still with my dad. I remember that feeling, like you've earned your father's respect. The kid wanting to be in the kitchen, not being allowed in there because it's not a place for a kid and then earning access to it.

That's one of the reasons why this movie is going to be a soft "R" which in the movie business, that's something that's never permitted by a studio. Just because you want to drop more than one "F" bomb in the movie doesn't mean that you should be seen as a film that's only for a limited audience.

David Chang told me, "When I see a PG-13 movie about a kitchen, I know that it's not going to be realistic. Kitchens are not PG places."

Yet, what's on YouTube now is less appropriate. I'm very comfortable with my kids seeing this R-rated movie and my kids are 7, 10 and 12. I actually was talking to David Chang about it. He says, "Yeah, when I see a PG-13 movie about a kitchen, I know that it's not going to be realistic because kitchens are not PG places." To me that was part of the fun, the roughness of the kitchen allowed for emotional tenderness in other aspects in the movie. Swingers was a soft "R" and Made was a soft "R".

The early reviews are in and a number of critics are saying, "Oh, this is Favreau talking about his own career as a filmmaker and he's responding to critics." What is your take on that?
You got to understand, the film critic thing and the food critic thing are completely different. When your movie comes out, there's over 150 reviews that are compiled online. The voice of the critic doesn't really ring true in a dramatic way. In the food business, one review, one bad review from an important reviewer can close a restaurant down, same thing with theater.

You got to understand, the film critic thing and the food critic thing are completely different.

When you play somebody on screen, they try to attribute that as auto-biographical, but the fact is I think I have a pretty healthy perspective on that. I don't make the initial mistake, which is I don't really dwell on negativity. I take positivity with a grain of salt. I'm appreciative of it but I don't ever let it with what's the more important part. Which is doing the work and moving forward.

Why did you write it as a conflict between a critic and an artist?
Because I thought that was the best way to have everything everything explode in his face. I mean, those are the iconic archetypes in a food story, right? You have the customer, you have the chef and you have the critic. I mean, look at Ratatouille, right? Isn't that? Who else would you have?

It's also about divorce. I'm from a divorce. I'm not divorced but I know what that is like. It's a stretch to say that it's me, but I will say that I take that as a compliment because I think it says that there's a naturalism to it that makes people think it's maybe not as much of a construct as it actually is.


Could we talk about the use of Twitter in the film? Have you ever had a bad experience in Twitter where you've said something you shouldn't have?
I've been an early adopter. The guy I'm playing is a bit of a Luddite. I've watched people join and people delete their accounts because they didn't understand the nature of the conversation and they end either tweeting something out of emotion or in a moment of indiscretion. You have to pay it the same respect as you would have if you were doing a press release. It takes a certain amount of diligence and maturity, I think, to not slip up.

Do you enjoy Twitter? Do you find it stressful?
I think what the movie says about it is right, which is that it amplifies things. If things are going bad, social media will make it go terribly bad, but if things are going good...the Kogi Truck would be serving a couple of dozen tacos on Venice Beach if it wasn't for Twitter. But because of social media, people got turned on to what he was doing and now this little well-kept secret has become a cultural phenomenon.

Kogi Truck would be serving a couple of dozen tacos on Venice Beach if it wasn't for Twitter.

It's very interesting that this old fashioned taco truck meets Twitter and suddenly becomes this national trend.
That's the point. It all happened in the same time. Oftentimes, a technology will marry up with an artist's work. Like Walt Disney. I know this isn't Eater-friendly, but Walt Disney, when he was animating Mickey Mouse in the early days, Steamboat Willy, the technology was finally there to lock the music track to the picture. So every bit of choreography was accented by a piece of music and that blew people's minds.

You could say the same thing for Toy Story. A well-told story was done with 3D animation for the first time. Avatar, same thing. You have a technology being married up with an inspired voice. It amplifies it tremendously.

Roy actually went through that experience. What it was like when people were lining up, that was it. With this aim, I never set out to make a movie about Twitter, but much like in Swingers where we used answering machines it was just part of our language. Twitter was part of the language to raise the stakes and make this guy's life miserable.

Then it became fun, because then how do you graphically depict that? That's where the graphics and the birds came up. It feels fresh but also very understandable because everybody's aware of it. It's amazing how early the laughs come when we start to make reference to his lack of acumen with the medium, and the kid is trying to teach him but the guy just doesn't get it.

Are you worried it's going to date the movie?
I don't think so. I mean, there's not one cellphone in Swingers and people still like it. There are so many aspects that feel classic to it that I'm glad to have something that makes me feel "at the moment." Then the food's going to date probably, too.

Talk about some of the critic thing. Oliver Platt is New York Magazine restaurant critic Adam Platt's brother, was that on purpose?
I didn't realize it at first. As I was casting him, as we were looking him up I found out. That was a huge plus because I wanted somebody who was going to really humanize that character, because ultimately the person who ruined the chef's career was the chef not the critic.

He talked to his brother and I talked to [LA Times critic] Jonathan Gold, I sat with him. What I found was they all care very deeply about the food community, the culinary community. It's not lost on them how much influence they have. They do not take pleasure in reflecting negatively on somebody who's ambitiously trying to do something. What they really like is to celebrate some new discovery, and so it's a very heavy mantle for those guys.

I think that a lot of people who write about the movie, if they watch the whole movie, they'll see that the perspective on criticism is not … It's very convenient to be blaming the critic from the beginning of the movie for the chef, but by the end of the film, his perspective has shifted tremendously.

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—Meghan McCarron