In his latest film, "Chef," writer-director by Jon Favreau collaborated with famed Los Angeles chef and entrepreneur Roy Choi to craft a film about cooking, life and what it means to be an artist. The two talked with Take Two's Alex Cohen about how they came together on this labor of love.
In the film, Favreau plays a chef named Carl Casper, who runs the kitchen at one of L.A.'s hottest restaurants. When the city's top food critics reserves a table, Carl decides its time to revamp the menu, but the restaurant's owner (played by Dustin Hoffman) vetoes the idea.
Carl's quick temper eventually gets him fired. He then tries to get his culinary groove back by opening up a food truck with the help of his young son. They serve up Cuban sandwiches, and the truck becomes a bit hit with crowds across the country, reminding him why he loves what he does.
Favreau, who spoke with Take Two at his office in Venice, explained why he wanted to make a film about people who cook.
"Ever since I read 'Kitchen Confidential,' I've really been interested in that aspect of culinary culture," Favreau said. "I've always loved food, and food is extremely cinematic — like 'Eat, Drink, Man, Woman' or 'Jiro Dreams of Sushi' — that I thought I could do [a] really good job doing something with food. I don't know what is was going to be, but I knew I wanted to do something."
More important, Favreau said, he knew he wanted to do it right. He decided to hire a culinary consultant for the film, and someone on Favreau's production team suggested he turn to the man who started the food truck craze in L.A.: Roy Choi of Kogi truck fame.
"His life was uncanny how similar it was to the storyline that I wrote," Favreau said. "So much so that I was worried about meeting him, like, 'Is he going to think that I cribbed this from his life?' It was a six-hour meeting that went from restaurant to restaurant as I followed in his footsteps and watched him."
For his part, Choi said he wasted no time training Favreau to take on the role of a head chef.
"He ate like I eat, which is going around each kitchen, tasting, having the cooks fire one dish," Choi said. "Every kitchen I go to you, you pick a random dish, just to test it, just so you have your fingers on every single part of the menu. I think this was the first time he'd ever stepped behind the line."
Soon after, Choi sent the actor to a week of intensive French culinary schooling, where Favreau sharpened his knife skills and learned how to make the "mother sauces": the five sauces crucial to fine cuisine, from Auguste Escoffier's classic cookbook "Le Guide Culinaire."
"I brought him into the kitchen, and he just kind of fit in. I threw him a couple tests, like a case of chives, or a case of onions, or peel two cases of avocados," Choi said. "Just to see where his mind and his situation and his abilities were and how interested he was in these things. He just attacked them. He really became a part of it."
But there's a big difference between being part of Roy Choi's team of cooks and playing a head chef onscreen. Favreau said the role was tough at first.
"The hardest challenge was looking and conducting myself, carrying myself like a chef, because Roy would be on me," Favreau said. "He just kept lecturing me about how I was holding my towel wrong. He says you can tell everything you know about a chef by how he holds a towel."
As Favreau shot key scenes at Hatfield's restaurant in Hollywood, Choi was there to make sure everything looked authentic, down to the knife tattoo Favreau sports on his arm in the film.
"It's like being a DJ. You're timing things, you're concentrating, you're in a flow. I tried to apply that mindset to what I was doing," Favreau said. "There's a tremendous amount of subtext that I had to feed into, and oftentimes Roy was just off camera talking me through what I'm thinking. So he was a great acting coach as well."
Instead of relying on film industry tricks like using fake food or spraying every dish with glycerin to hold up better while filming, Favreau and his crew used real ingredients. The cast and crew happily ate everything afterward. Choi even helped Favreau set up shots, as seen in this behind-the-scenes footage:
I asked Choi what it was like, his first time ever on a movie set, directing the same guy who directed the "Iron Man" movies.
"He gave me the space to just be myself, so once he gave me that space, I forgot that it was Jon Favreau, to be honest," Choi said. "All I cared about was the story, and all I cared about was being Jon's sous chef and making sure that he shines in this role. So in those moments, all I did was directing as I would in a kitchen."
The finished product is a film that's not just about life working in a restaurant, but a film that's also about how food moves people. In one scene, Favreau's character tells his son that a beignet is more than just a delicious treat: It's a food that inspires memory.
I asked the Favreau and Choi if they have a personal equivalent of that beignet, a food that always makes them feel nostalgic.
For Choi, it's a no brainer: Korean short ribs, known as kalbi:
"Everytime I eat kalbi, it brings me back to how I was raised and us as immigrants when I was a young kid. It was a little bit tough here in L.A. when they first came over, and so there were other families here, there wasn't a community yet, we weren't able to get jobs, things were kind of blocked off to us. So we had to create our own sub-economy within each other. The only way that we found a little bit of peace with each other was to go to the parks on the weekend, and we would all bring kalbi and barbecue, and that was kind of our time as Korean-Americans together with other families, just sharing in a little bit of the misery, I guess. That for me always brings back the journey to here and where I am right now."
For Favreau, his love of food is connected to places from his past:
"Honestly, my food memories are more connected to the cities that I've lived in. If I get off the plane, and I'm in Chicago, I go right to the Wieners Circle and get a red hot or a deep dish pizza. If I'm in New York, I have to get a slice of pizza from a real New York pizzeria. There's something about smelling food, smelling perfumes, that trigger subconscious connections with your memory, and emotions come out. I think that there is a genuine relationship that people have, certainly, when you feed people, and I see the pride that Roy and the other chefs I've met have, in what they serve and what it represents beyond just nourishment."
Favreau said he first began to understand that pride on the day Choi taught him how to make a Cuban pressed sandwich on a grill called a plancha. It's a moment they caught on film, and it pops up in the end credits of "Chef."
"He was just giving me my last minute pep talk, and I rolled camera on it. I thought it was nice for people to see what the relationship was like and who Roy was. ... He was sort of the soul behind the food in the movie," Favreau said. "To me, it's the best line in the whole movie. Roy says, 'Nothing exists, but this sandwich, and if you f--k this up, everything sucks in the world.' That is the key to being a chef. It's this myopic, obsessive view about this one task and doing it perfectly."