Netflix has released a lot of great food programs over the last few years, but none have been as singularly focused on the act of cooking as The Chef Show, a new series starring Kogi empire builder Roy Choi and actor/writer/director Jon Favreau. In every episode, you see these two friends work through every step of their favorite recipes, with running commentary from Choi about the techniques involved. And although the series includes cameos from an array of famous people — Gwyneth Paltrow! Robert Downey Jr.! Tom Holland! David Chang! — the most memorable moments are found in these kitchen scenes, where Choi and Favreau bring dishes like kimchi fried rice and pasta aglio e olio to life.
The hosts first met during production of Favreau’s movie Chef, when Choi agreed to work as a culinary consultant on the condition that the star/filmmaker agreed to do everything he said in the kitchen scenes. After the release of Chef, Favreau and Choi collaborated on pop-ups and even toyed with the idea of opening a restaurant, but ultimately decided that having a food TV show would be a great way to keep cooking together.
The two friends recently took a break from their busy schedules — Choi just launched an excellent KCET show called Broken Bread, while Favreau is prepping both the Lion King remake and the new Star Wars TV series, The Mandalorian — to talk about the origins of The Chef Show and why they wanted to bring this style of old-school cooking demonstration back to television.
How did we get from Chef to The Chef Show?
Jon Favreau: It started off very organically. After we were done working together and the film came out, we did a lot of promotion and remained friends, but we never really cooked together anymore, because Roy’s busy cooking all day. And then there was a lot of talk about, “Hey, do you want to do a sequel?” I didn’t want to do a sequel, because I felt like the story sat the way it should, and I didn’t want to do another movie. But the idea of cooking and sharing an experience with Roy, that was something interesting to me.
At first I just got cameras and filmed us cooking in different environments with different people. It was done over the course of three years, and then I would take the footage and just start working on it. I didn’t know if I was going to pitch it somewhere. And the next thing you know, I ended up finishing it, just trusting that in this day and age, we‘d find a good partner. We ended up doing enough episodes to actually deliver a season, and it turned into a Netflix show. They loved the authenticity of it, they loved the passion.
We have sequences that I filmed when I was going out of town to work on Spider-Man: Homecoming. We were out in Austin and Atlanta, cooking with other people who I knew liked to cook — Gwyneth Paltrow and Bill Burr — and other chefs, like David Chang. It became this thing that took on a shape through the editorial process, like a documentary. And now we have a format, but at first it was really [about] having fun cooking together and talking and sharing those experiences with friends.
Roy Choi: It was just us trying to find ways to continue to hang out with each other. That’s what friends do, right? You create road trips together or you call each other and say, “Let’s go to the movies.” And this was just another way for us in our busy lives to make time to be with each other. It’s great that something came out of it. But [going back to] Jon’s feelings toward not wanting to make a sequel, we were bouncing around the idea of possibly [opening] a restaurant too, and there still may be one. But that seemed like a lot of work, and this naturally came out of the ashes of those two ideas.
Looking back at some of the interviews you guys did for Chef, it seems like a big priority for you was being faithful to how real chefs cook. Did you have the same priorities with this project?
RC: Yeah, for me it was about going back to the essence of the original cooking-to-camera shows. Obviously you remember Paul Prudhomme, Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, Sara Moulton, and Emeril. And then another inspiration was one of Jon’s early shows, Dinner for Five. That was like the original podcast, where you could just talk about things. That created the foundation, and it was like, You know what? Maybe sometimes in life that’s good enough. Put on the camera, get some food, start cooking, invite some friends over, and let’s see where it goes.
JF: I don’t know if someone like Roy understands how great it is to cook with a chef, because chefs are all teachers. You’re being shown little things, you’re picking up lessons all along the way. And being able to ask somebody who’s an expert questions is such a valuable thing. I guess we figured if we liked it, other people might like it, too. And so we just created a show that we really would want to watch and that we’re proud of. It’s not like a gig we got asked to do; it’s something that we’re pushing out that we really love. I’m very excited for people to see it.
RC: And you’ll see as you watch the show: In this age now, everything is just so compressed, but this show is like an album. You truly play it from the beginning, and it just plays all the way through, 12 songs. There’s something about that and the way Jon shot it, where we allow the recipes time for you to see every layer without worrying about, “Will we lose you as a viewer?” I found that really courageous and awesome. That’s what those old shows used to do, and this is that in a new way.
You had some clear food fixations in Chef — including Cubanos and beignets. How did you select what you were going to focus on for this new show?
JF: Well, we definitely wanted to hit all of those. Because so many people had been recreating them on the internet and we wanted to show Roy showing you how to do it. And then we also added stuff, kind of how chefs work: You go to a city, you’re inspired by what’s there, and then you work your way out and mix that up with whatever your background is. You bring your thing to it. So we went to Austin for the Hot Luck Festival. We were smoking short ribs with Aaron Franklin, but then deconstructing it and mixing it with Korean flavors from Roy’s background. It felt very organic. It wasn’t like we brainstormed themes. It was more, like, “Let’s go to the farmer’s market and see what looks fresh.”
Do you have a favorite moment from the first season?
RC: Piggybacking off of what Jon just said about the Aaron Franklin episode, I think there was something really special about Austin. We were there two or three days for the inaugural Hot Luck Festival, a gathering of all the greatest pitmasters and chefs, and I got to access all of the smokers — so, that’s like riding in someone’s car. [Franklin] gave me full access to all the smokers, and then it takes two days to make barbecue. I don’t see it sometimes, because I’m doing it, but then going back and seeing it in the editing room, it’s this odyssey. You start from the beginning and go through two days of building layers and flavors and the smoking and the sweating. It’s pretty awesome to watch.
JF: As for me, when we were gearing up to do Chef, I had studied with Roy and I didn’t really understand much about Korean cooking. And then to be working in one of Roy’s kitchens cooking Korean food and have David Chang come in and they both taste my cooking, and think that it tasted good? To me, that was a moment that I’ll never forget. They both have very different perspectives, but they were both at least polite enough to say that it tasted good, so that was a big deal.
RC: I felt the same way when I was sitting with you and Robert Rodriguez, two of my independent film heroes. You don’t see that as unique, but I’m sitting there just geeking the fuck out because it’s the two pioneers of modern independent film, and I’m just watching them talk to each other. It’s just like you saw me and Dave.
JF: That’s part of the fun of what our lives offer, because of the worlds that we get to cross over. And that’s sort of an inspiration, too. What’s it really like to meet people that you see on television that you look up to? And then you actually get to meet them as humans? I didn’t know that was part of the show, but it repeats over and over again: people talking about how they got to where they are, and this ambition and mental attitude they all have in common.
• The Chef Show [Netflix]
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.