Director-screenwriter-actor Jon Favreau (“Swingers,” “Iron Man”) sweated the details, from fish tattoos to tourne knives, in returning to independent cinema with his new film “Chef.”
To prepare for his role as a well-employed but creatively stuck chef who regains his mojo through a food-truck venture, Favreau consulted Roy Choi, a Los Angeles food-truck forerunner. Choi, former executive chef at Sacramento’s Embassy Suites hotel, oversees a burgeoning Southern California food empire encompassing several Kogi Korean-taco trucks and non-wheeled restaurants.
Choi advised Favreau on how chefs think, cook and talk, eventually putting the filmmaker to work on his trucks and in his restaurant kitchens. But first, Choi sent Favreau to culinary training.
“I learned about ‘mother’ sauces, how to break down a chicken and classic knife skills,” Favreau said by phone last week during a Bay Area publicity stop for “Chef,” opening Friday in Sacramento.
Favreau shows off precision knife skills in “Chef,” though he demurs that “there is movie magic involved, in the editing room and in post-production, that makes it look like I am better than I am.”
Favreau is being characteristically humble, Choi said.
“He picks up things so quickly,” Choi, reached by phone in Los Angeles, said of Favreau’s kitchen skills. “But most of all, he had the humility to just come in and work. I was a little naïve – ‘Are you supposed to have A-list directors come in and really grind it out?’ But I put him in every possible environment a chef could be in, from peeling onions and doing prep work to working on the line, to (daily) closing and opening. … He was totally game, working full shifts.
“He wants to get all the details right, so the ones that do know (about his films’ subject matter) know that he knows. Whether it is a detail for the Comic-Con audience for ‘Iron Man,’ or for ‘Swingers’ back in the day.”
And a lot of people know the ins and outs of kitchen work – or think they do – thanks to a million food-themed reality TV shows. Whereas the Favreau-written 1996 film “Swingers” caught the swing-dance revival mid-trend and furthered it, helping popularize bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, food mania was years old when Favreau started writing “Chef.”
As a longtime foodie – he hosted the 2001-05 IFC Channel show “Dinner for Five,” on which he interviewed filmmakers over food and drink – Favreau, 47, understands the expectations for, and appeal of, a food film.
“It’s almost like watching a magician do a card trick – watching a great chef prepare a meal – especially if it’s photographed well,” Favreau said. “I remember watching ‘Eat Drink Man Woman’ or ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi,’ and I just found it hypnotic to watch these wonderful chefs and their dexterity and their knife skills.”
A few “Chef” scenes, such as one in which Favreau’s character, Carl, lovingly creates a grilled-cheese sandwich at home for his son (Emjay Anthony), likely will rank among the better food-prep-on-film moments.
Favreau spent all that time in Choi’s kitchens to lend accuracy to the film’s cooking scenes but also to absorb enough of the vibe to allow him to roam a kitchen on screen with a confidence befitting Carl, one-time bright young thing on the L.A. culinary scene.
His years at a high-end but unadventurous restaurant have dimmed his star, but Carl retains enough audacity to challenge the restaurant’s owner (Dustin Hoffman) and to call out a critic (Oliver Platt) on Twitter. (Carl also confronts the critic in person in a video-recorded meltdown that goes viral. His subsequent joblessness leads him to Miami and the start of his Cuban-sandwich food truck).
Crafting Carl’s persona also entailed careful attention to the ink on his skin. Favreau said tattoos provide outlets for chefs with big personalities but no way to show them through their pressed white uniforms.
In “Chef,” Favreau sports a “sleeve” tattoo of a koi fish sliced up, a pat of butter on its head. A tattoo depicting a chef’s knife – Favreau said he’s seen this on real chefs – adorns his other forearm. Letters spelling out “El Jefe” (Spanish for “the chief”) run across the knuckles on both hands.
“I knew that kitchen culture was Latino and that seemed like a really bold move,” Favreau said of the “El Jefe” tattoo. “He must be a really cocky chef if he was a white dude with ‘El Jefe,’ working with all the Latino cooks.”
Such meticulous character development reflects a sense of ownership more possible with a modestly budgeted films like “Chef” than the Hollywood behemoths Favreau has directed: 2008’s “Iron Man” and its first sequel, and the 2011 box-office disappointment “Cowboys & Aliens.”
“With big-budget films, there are a lot of people who have input,” Favreau said. He found TV pilots (Favreau directed the first episodes of NBC’s “Revolution” and “About a Boy”) “even more creatively invasive” than blockbusters, he said. “You are a small fish in a small pond, so it’s almost like everybody has more say than you do in the process.”
“Chef” would be his show, and his test.
“I wanted to see if I still had the chops,” he said. “If I could still act and direct and write and do all those things together while keeping a small movie on budget and shooting it in less than a month.”
That short “Chef” shoot incorporated stops in Miami, New Orleans and Austin, Texas, and a cast that includes Sofia Vergara as Carl’s ex-wife, John Leguizamo as a cook and “Iron Man 2” co-stars Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson as, respectively, a businessman from whom Carl gets the food truck and an L.A. restaurant’s hostess.
“Chef” opened May 9 in New York and Los Angeles to positive reviews and hearty box office. In much the way making simple Cuban food on the truck reawakens Carl’s creativity, the return to indie film has energized Favreau.
“It’s not something I intended consciously, but I know that the movie does feel like the little food truck,” Favreau said. “The feeling of being happy that the character feels when he is finally cooking food on the truck, and people are getting it, and liking it, it is a feeling I do relate to.”
The parallels only go so far. Carl is “much more broken and stupid than I am,” Favreau said, and therefore ready for a movie-size arc. As Carl drives the food truck from Miami to Los Angeles, he’s also trying to repair his relationship with his young son, who is along for the ride. Carl often has given the kid short shrift while focusing on work.
Favreau, who has three children with his wife, Joya, said he could relate to Carl being a father, but not to him being a neglectful one. And unlike the viral-video-vehement Carl, Favreau only makes the news when he has a movie coming out. “I haven’t embarrassed myself or screwed up,” he said. “I am very careful.”
Careful while also being active on social media. Favreau has 1.7 million Twitter followers. His “Chef” character, by contrast, is such a Twitter neophyte he believes his first tweet to the critic is private, not public.
Actor Platt, whose brother, Adam Platt, is a real food critic for New York magazine, helped Favreau word the critic’s review, which takes a mean, how-the-mighty-have-fallen approach. Favreau also sought input on the review from Garry Shandling, who is not famous for his food criticism but knows from withering remarks.
Neither the review’s viciousness nor Carl’s blow-up at the critic should be taken as commentary on negative reviews of his own projects, Favreau said.
“I react differently from the character,” Favreau said. “I don’t get angry. I get sad if somebody doesn’t get what I am doing. And I don’t really read (the review) that deeply. I see what it says, and I kind of move on to the next one.
“I think the character in the film is getting angry because he deep-down agrees with what the guy is saying. And I don’t feel that way about me. Maybe I am naïve, but I kind of feel good about what I have done. Even the stuff that isn’t well-received, I am very proud of. I make excuses for nothing.”