In the dramedy film “Chef” (written, directed and produced by Jon Favreau), Favreau stars as Los Angeles chef Carl Casper, who loses his job at a restaurant after clashing with his boss Riva (played by Dustin Hoffman) and having a meltdown over getting a negative review from influential food critic Ramsey Michel (played by Oliver Platt). Faced with an uncertain future, Carl decides to start his own food truck business, at the suggestion of his ex-wife Inez (played by Sofia Vergara). To launch the business, Carl goes on a cross-country road trip in the food truck, with the help of his best friend/sous chef Martin (played by John Leguizamo) and Carl’s young son Percy (played by Emjay Anthony), who forms a closer bond with Carl as a result of the trip.
The cast members of “Chef” also include Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson, who both worked with Favreau on “Iron Man 2.” “Chef” had its New York City premiere at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, where it won the Heineken Audience Award for Best Feature Film. According to the Tribeca Film Festival, Favreau donated the $25,000 prize to City Harvest, a New York-based food charity. Here is what Favreau said in a roundtable interview with journalists during the Tribeca Film Festival press junket for “Chef.”
So how was it keeping up with John Leguizamo?
It was the best. I’ve known his work for so long and I’ve known him! It was actually on “Dinner for Five” I met him many years ago. I used to do that TV show. I’m an improviser, and he is. What I like about him is he’s not just a comedian improviser, he’s an actor. It’s never at the expense of a scene.
That’s where you get into trouble with improv, is people get selfish with it. Acting is a very selfless thing. You have to be supportive of the story and the emotional baggage that the scene has to carry.
He was always great. Plus, he’s a really hard worker for as long as he’s been at it. He’s really inspiring. He’s an actor’s actor.
Most actors at a certain point they want to do something else. They’ve had their fun acting, and now they want to produce or want to direct, and then they lose the passion. I think he wants to do other things beside it, but still primarily he’s an actor and he loves it. He always acts like he’s very lucky to be on the set every day and get to work. A lot of people lose that after 20 to 25 years.
John told us that he went to a restaurant to train. What about you?
Sure. I came out here and I worked with him at the restaurant that he worked at. But I was back with Roy Choi, the chef who is one of our producers on this film, the guy that came up with the menu, and the guy who honestly said he would help. But I have to get the chef culture right, and most movies don’t. Most chefs are disappointed with how their world is depicted on the big screen and so every step of the way, whether it was the script or my training or the way the food was presented in the movie, he oversaw.
First, he sent me off to a very condensed version of a traditional French culinary training, just so I could be exposed to what my character would have been exposed to. And then, doing prep work in his kitchen, working on the line in his kitchens. For three months, I worked with him very closely. I already knew the basics of cooking and I love reading books and watching shows about cooking so I kind of had a really good context of it all.
I had done a lot of research and writing — every book I could get my hands on. But that’s totally different from actually being there in the kitchen. The bug bit me, and I’m still doing it. It’s my hobby.
I’m ripping apart my kitchen home and putting in commercial equipment. The family loves doing it with me, so it’s a nice thing. It’s a hobby that ages gracefully, more than DJ'ing.
What’s your best dish that you cook right now?
My best? You know, sometimes it’s the simple things. I can do a really good grilled cheese, like in the movie, that you would taste and know that it’s on a different level. I’ve got pretty good at cooking at very high heat, grilling steaks. And again, these are all simple things but these are things with very few ingredients.
The berry dish from the movie with the brittle? It’s a very simple dish, but it requires a lot of technique to get the brittle to the right temperature so it won’t shatter and if it’s too humid knowing when to put the brittle through the sieve to get it to turn to dust. It’s only four ingredients.
I’ve been using this smoker too. That's really cool. When we go to Austin we get the brisket at Franklin, that’s something I’ve been working on at home too. We have to cook it all night long and keep the temperature consistent. But again, all it is are brisket, salt and pepper. All those flavors come from the prep. It’s been really fun.
One of the big themes in "Chef" is the creative process as it manifests through food. Where did you get the inspiration to use the food culture? Did that come first or did the theme of the creative process come first?
The food came first because I’ve been fixated. You have to really find something you would be happy to obsess over to make a movie because you have to live it. This one was pretty short. We shot it in a month. The whole thing would have taken a little over a year, compared to one of the big movies I would do, which take two years.
But as a director, you have to be able to pick something that excites you enough that you can breathe it every day, all day. and make a million different decisions about it, and love it. And food was something I really thought was cinematic. I love "Big Night." I love "Eat Drink Man Woman" and "Jiro Dreams of Sushi."
There are so few films like that. I want to do something about that world especially with this rock star chef culture. I thought, “What a great character.”
But on the same token, I know the creative process I know the balance of art and commerce. People in the movie business tend to be a little bit more realistic about it. People from chef culture never thought they were going to be public figures when they started working as chefs. So you’ll get people who are a lot more flawed and a lot more dramatically interesting.
You can’t really make a movie about making movies. It’s boring, unless you’re really smug about the whole thing, like “The Player.” It’s hard to be entertaining. You can make a much more sincere film about food culture.
It allowed me to take some of my experience from wanting to make something that’s my vision but also having to satisfy an audience, and people investing money. reviewers, online blogging, commenting on your stuff, being sensitive, but also being bold. And I was able to use an exaggerated aspects of that to help color in his film.
How is it working with Scarlett Johansson and Sophia Vergara?
There was more to that question than that. Was it like, “Wow, he gave himself some hot girls to be around”? It shows you how good of a chef he might have been. The food must be really good, if they pat attention.
I’ve hung out with chefs. If you’re at the top of your game, there’s something that’s really captivating about that. What I like about chefs too is that they’re very confident and they don’t apologize for their individuality.
As a matter of fact, they play it up with their tattoos, their hair, their personas. They are like rock stars. Even as a guy, having a guy cook for you is incredibly intimate and incredibly flattering and emotional. It’s like a musician playing a song for somebody. And I wanted to capture that.
Beyond that, Sophia was somebody I didn’t know personally, but as I wrote the role, it was very clear that I don’t know who else it could have been. She was definitely my first choice.
She was the first person I met with and she was down for it. Scarlett, I knew from Black Widow in [“Iron Man 2”], and she’s just really super-smart, and she’s got it. Both she and [Robert] Downey came on, and it was a big favor on both their parts, because this was not a high-paying gig, by any stretch. As a matter of fact, it paid as little as the guilds would allow to get it made.
And then, everybody else, it’s a dream cast. These were all first choices. Bobby Cannavale I didn’t think I could get. I chased him down. I’d been wanting to work with him for a long time. He seemed perfect. He’s great.
And Leguizamo. Both of them being New Yorkers and me being a New Yorker, it really added to the dialogue in the kitchen. which was such an important part for me to get that right — to have it humorous but also a little rough around the edges and also inappropriate for kids, which will give this film a soft R. As a dad it makes me sad, because my kids like the movie so much but if you want to say the “f” word more than once it’s an R. And you can’t make a movie about a kitchen with all nice language.
I wanted to get it right and I didn’t want to change anything. And fortunately, I didn’t have to. Everything you see in the movie is exactly how I wanted it. After working on big movies where you have to collaborate a lot, and you have to make concessions for commercial reasons or studio politics, it was nice to do a little one where I only had to please myself.
Did you get pulled into watching the chef reality shows?
I love them all. I do. Gordon Ramsay is actually one that’s really good, if you dig it up on YouTube it’s called “Boiling Point,” which is the beginning of Gordon Ramsay. It’s a documentary about him as a young chef. It really showed what’s evolved into a persona, because he’s really a public figure now, but the time, it was just a chef breaking out in the ‘90s. It’s really fascinating to watch.
“Top Chef,” I’ve seen every episode. But Anthony Bourdain is the one … I love his voice and he’s sort of a gonzo journalist chef who, in “Kitchen Confidential,” really showed what that world was, and that was so intriguing to me.
I had never known anything about it. I’ve been a bartender, but I never really got the kitchen culture. The idea of the fast and loose life they were living and the type of people that are drawn to that world who are good and excel in that world. The other chefs that talk about their passions, about trying to find their voice, I think that’s really romantic as well.
All of that really said, “There’s a movie here, and I could bring a lot to it.” I like to draw from naturalism and find something cool and then just highlight it, as I’ve done in my most successful films in the past, I’ve identified something that’s kind of cool, whether it’s the swing scene or different authentic little pockets of things that really exist and seem like they’re created for the screen.
What made you go back to your independent roots?
I saw Lena Dunham and Louis C.K. and Larry David having so much fun doing it and I missed it and realized that I could do it if I want to. I mean, maybe I could. I could logistically do it but I didn’t know if I could creatively do it. It was intimidating. It takes a lot. There are less safety nets.
When you work on the big movies, once you get your take on it, and you get your cast, it’s pretty much too big to fail. You’re going to be protected. And then, you can make it special and elevate usually, but the big ones are going to push all the way through, with or without you.
The little ones, if you lose power, it just crashes. If you lose your thread of inspiration, there’s no safety net.
People think that big movies are worse than little movies. That’s not true. There’s bad big ones and bad little ones. The bad big ones have to make their money back, so they’ll push them down your throat.
The bad little ones just disappear. They disappear. They pop up maybe on Netflix or cable someday, but they just disappear into the ether. So you only hear about the good little ones.
But I really, really wanted to try it again. And I had so much fun doing it. I had such a great time making it. I’m so proud of it. And honestly, if I could come up with a script every year, I would do it. It just takes me 15 years to come up with a script.
Social media plays a big part in the “Chef” story. It’s almost a character itself. Have you had any experience with it that has either been bruising or elevating? Have you had a manager slap you on the wrist for anything you’ve ever posted?
No, I’m a pretty early adopter of Twitter, and I usually know more about social media than the people I’m working with who are in marketing or in publicity. Everybody is catching on now, but there’s a whole subculture to it.
My story would have been very boring. I’m smart enough not to do things out of emotion. I don’t get drunk and tweet stuff out. I think people misunderstand how far-reaching social networking is and how permanent it is. People constantly make mistakes, not just with Twitter, with texting and everything. By nature, I’ve just been a much more measured and paranoid person.
Do you have any rules about Twitter and other social media? John Leguizamo said that he waits 24 hours to think about something before he sends an angry tweet.
Yes! That’s a big one, I don’t know if he picked that up from me but that’s been a big one for me. It comes from being a parent. It comes from being married. In general, your most emotional response to something is not the best. It’s usually the most ill-advised on.
As a director too, I really try not to be too emotional on the set, which is hard, being an actor, because you have to be extremely emotional and extremely subjective with blinders on. Balancing those two things is difficult. But I think don’t do it drunk. Don’t tweet emotionally.
Imagine the least likely person in your life that you’d like reading it, reading it, whether it’s a relative or somebody you work with or one of your kid’s friends. As a parent, it just limits things a lot, because now you’re not just embarrassing yourself, you’re embarrassing your kids.
I think everything is shifting though … because everybody’s got phones with cameras and stuff, everybody’s everything is going to be up for display. There’s no privacy anymore. And then you just judge differently.
Right now, there’s still this American puritanical veil of decorum, but everybody’s got other sides to them, and all that is exposed. And certainly, when you’re getting into a heavy-duty emotional response to something, your worst side is going to show, and you just have to be accountable for your actions more now. I don’t know in the long run if that’s a bad thing, but the growing pains are really rough for some people — and certainly for the [Carl Casper] character in the movie.
“Chef” took on the structure of a classic road trip. When did you decide on that structure?
That’s an interesting question because I started writing it and I thought, “Oh, here I am writing a movie where I can stay home and really celebrate Venice and the culinary culture in California and Los Angeles.” And then, lo and behold, like everything else I’ve written without a structure, I ended up on the road.
In “Swingers,” we went to Vegas. In “Made,” we went to New York. And here [in “Chef”], we just set out to do a road trip. I think I always loved “Easy Rider.” I remember buying a Harley after I quit working on Wall Street back in the ‘80s. I bought a Harley with the fantasy of going cross-country, which I did. I think the romanticism wasn’t about the biker culture as much as about the movie itself.
I always love the stories about how they took the bikes and they took the cameras and went on the road and filmed them. That was really one of the founding fathers of independent film right there — the idea of just taking the truck on the road with the cameras and going from town to town and filming it in a real environment. When you don’t have a lot of money but you have that freedom, you can get a lot of production value from our country. Getting the authentic backdrop and the music was great. So we kind of trace their steps a little bit.
Did it take a long time to cast the kid who would be Percy? How did you cast Emjay Anthony?
He came through the casting process, I was lucky to have a good casting director. He hadn’t done a lot of work before, but I really loved his naturalism and his emotional honesty. And I knew I could get the comedy out of him and the performances out of him. It’s tough to make somebody feel authentic and he had that coming in.
John Leguizamo mentioned that his son was on the “Chef” set because it filmed in the summer. Were any of your kids there?
I have three kids. Yeah, they were around. They were great. My littlest one who’s 7, she likes to wear a little chef’s coat. She was helping to do food prep and was very excited to be participating in it and certainly helped me practice. John’s son was around and sometimes was more fun for Emjay than the movie was.
Family was always welcomed. People were coming in and out. I encouraged the crew to bring their families in. It’s a luxury nowadays. Most people aren’t able to film at home, especially in California. And so to be able to film this, people weren’t getting paid top dollar for their services, compared to big movies, so I wanted to make sure the vibe on the set was great. It was that kind of movie — and I think that shows.
For more info: "Chef" website