The grill on the balcony was hot, the steaks had been rubbed with coarse salt and pepper, and the berries were soaking in Grand Marnier. The only thing needed was a cook.
Jon Favreau was that cook. A little over a week ago, Favreau was in his office in Venice Beach, Los Angeles, in the midst of rolling out Chef, a very personal film he wrote, directed and starred in, that will be opening commercially next month. There undoubtedly were marketing matters to attend to and travel arrangements to make.
But first there was lunch.
And not just lunch as in something you eat in the middle of the day to make it to dinner. No, this would be a lunch that would be worried over, caressed and coaxed into excellence. Prepared properly, a meal can be a physical manifestation of all the good things that live inside the person making it. That care and feeding of those around you is not a metaphor in Chef; it’s the whole point.
The film tells a sweet, instructive story of a hotshot Los Angeles chef (Favreau) undone by a lacerating review of his food and his own diminished gusto for his work. He ends up in the spanking machine of social media, quits his prestige gig and eventually partners with a son he has neglected and a loyal line cook to open a food truck and hit the road. As you might expect, he rediscovers his passion not just for food, but also for life.
Whether as producer, director or actor, Favreau helped build the Iron Man franchise into a phenomenon that grossed $2.4 billion worldwide over the course of three films, but right now he is dealing with another outsize challenge. Before him rest two leviathans: 1.5-pound rib-eyes.
He is wearing a ‘Bronx Science’ T-shirt, which points to his heritage on the East Coast, where he never managed to finish his degree at Queens College. He did comedy in Chicago and landed a few small roles in movies and television before he wrote Swingers for himself and Vince Vaughn.
But his kitchen skills are of a more recent vintage. He knows he can cook a steak for a reporter; but he also knows that if he screws up — leaving the steak 30 seconds too long on a very hot grill — this will be a story about a guy who made a movie called Chef but can’t cook.
Spoiler: Lunch was delicious.
An indifferent cook when he began Chef, he received six weeks of training, worked in a few restaurants run by the Los Angeles chef Roy Choi, and then hopped inside one of Choi’s Kogi BBQ trucks.
“He got everything right, including all the little OCD tics that chefs have,” Choi said, noting that Favreau can chop chives as fast as anyone in a New York kitchen.
Favreau has lived large as a director of big movies — Iron Man and Elf — and he has also been clobbered for the same. Cowboys & Aliens took in $174 million at the worldwide box office, but with a budget of more than $160 million and poor reviews, it was a disappointment. He’s also done many stints as an actor or director with movies like Made and Very Bad Things. Given all this, it’s not a long walk to Chef, which suggests that small can be not only beautiful, but also better for the soul.
“On this movie, I really wanted to do something where I didn’t have to check what colour the hat should be or what city has the biggest rebate or what actors test the highest,” he said.
Soon enough, Favreau will go to work on another giant movie, The Jungle Book for Disney, and he will end up in a “dark cave” with computers, green screens and editing machines. He’s proven to be very good at managing the business of big movies, but Favreau clearly loved making a tidy parable of food and family.
“It was fun to learn from chefs I admire, to go to cities that I love, and to work with actors who I admire so much,” he said.
“Who wouldn’t want to do something with him?” John Leguizamo, who plays the trusty grill cook and wingman, said.
While the verisimilitude of a kitchen fills the film, it comes off as a bit of a fantasia, even more so because the regular-looking chef’s two love interests are played by Sofia Vergara and Scarlett Johansson. The little movie includes a lot of other big names, like Favreau’s Iron Man star Robert Downey Jr and Dustin Hoffman.
Chef goes deep into the chopped and sautéed glories of life in the back of the restaurant.
“You have these people who are essentially living on the deck of a pirate ship, but they’re nerding out over the ramps and the flavour profile of a shallot,” he said, slicing the steak.