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A director with a purpose

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Director, writer, and actor Jon Favreau learned to cook professionally while preparing to make the independent film Chef, in which he plays Chef Carl Casper.

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Chef had a budget of $10 million, small by studio standards. “Because Chef is an independent movie, I had control,” Favreau said when introducing his film to a private Miami screening for an audience of local executive chefs and Miami Film Society members. The first 10 minutes of the film exemplify this control, showing 10 minutes of food preparation to set the mood of the film.

Roy Choi, a Los Angeles chef of Korean descent, helped Favreau become a convincing chef by arranging a special intense French cooking class. “I learned to work all the stations in Choi’s restaurants,” Favreau said. “I taught Emjay Anthony, who plays my son, Perry, how to use a chef’s knife, which isn’t easy for a 10-year-old.”

Learning to use a knife correctly can be very difficult and time-consuming for an actor, as my daughter, Marjory, learned on a short film she produced.

The story

“My story line is similar to Choi’s life,” Favreau told the Miami screening audience. Favreau’s character is the chef of a prominent Los Angeles restaurant owned by Riva, played by Dustin Hoffman. Riva doesn’t like change. Favreau struggles under Riva’s insistence on serving old favorites to a prominent food critic, Ramsey Michel, played by Oliver Platt. In real life, Oliver Platt is the brother of New York food critic Adam Platt. While writing the script, Favreau met with the Platt brothers, and Adam read the final script.

Ramsey Michel writes a scathing review about Chef Casper’s old, tired menu. Chef Casper throws a screaming fit at the critic and storms out of the restaurant. Then he goes home and cooks all the food he wanted to cook, with the groceries he had purchased to feed Ramsey. By this time in the movie, you will be salivating.

Favreau asked several well-known friends to take parts in the movie. In addition to Dustin Hoffman, they include Scarlett Johansson (who plays Molly the greeter in Riva’s restaurant), Robert Downey Jr., Bobby Cannavale, and John Legizamo. Johansson and Downey have both starred in Favreau’s big-budget movies, including Iron Man 2.

A Miami reaction

Broke and out of work, Casper talks to his ex-wife, Inez, a wealthy meeting planner played by Sofia Vergara. She is traveling to Miami on business and asks Casper to come along to look after their son. “Why?” Casper asks. “He has a nanny.”

“The nanny can’t get on a plane,” Inez responds. This comment generated laughter in Miami, where many in the audience are sensitive to the concerns of illegal immigrants. When asked about this, Favreau ducked the question with a straight face.

With work possibilities dismal, Casper grudgingly goes to Miami to visit Inez’s other ex-husband, Marvin (played by Robert Downey Jr.), about a food truck. Downey takes an atypically comedic role. Testosterone flies as the two ex-husbands wield verbal swords about their respective relationships with Inez.

Finally they “do business” and go to see the food truck, an old, beat-up vehicle that is grungy inside and out. Perry and Casper work on cleaning up the truck.

Transforming the truck

Casper maxes out his credit cards to refit the truck. Then Martin, who worked under Chef Casper at Riva’s, flies in unannounced from Los Angeles. Played by Spanish-speaker John Leguizamo, Martin helps with the truck, shopping, and addressing the Spanish-peaking workers who refused to respond to Casper’s request in English for help. Oh, so Miami!

Martin prepares Cubanos (Cuban sandwiches) made with Cuban bread, ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard. In Spanish, Martin invites the workers who helped load a heavy stove on the truck to the best Cubanos they have ever had. Subtitles would have made this scene even more delectable.

Watch the truck. Its sides and front grille change when the truck leaves the equipment yard where Casper worked on it, and a new truck is in the next screen for the test run on Ocean Drive in Miami Beach’s historic South Beach section.

On the road

En route from Miami to California, they make two stops – in New Orleans at Café Du Monde and in Austin, TX, at Franklin Barbecue and Guero. Chef Choi flew to New Orleans to consult on food preparation.

On South Beach and in New Orleans and Austin, son Perry uses social media to announce the arrival of his father’s truck and draw a crowd. “Perry knew some, but I had to teach him how to use social media,” says director Favreau.

Back in Los Angeles, the truck draws well – including a visit from critic Ramsey Michel, who sold his blog and Web site for a lot of money and wants to invest in a new restaurant. Knowing that Chef Casper would not serve him, he sent someone to purchase food for him. He is delighted that the talented Chef Casper of old is back.

Ramsey offers to be a silent partner in a new restaurant. When Martin makes a nasty comment about Ramsey, Chef Casper quiets him with the comment that Ramsey may be their new partner.

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