In Jon Favreau's new film, "Chef," the writer-director-star plays Carl Casper, a formerly adventurous and celebrated chef who's since stagnated in both his career and his relationship with his ex-wife and young son. An unexpected thrashing from Los Angeles' most prominent restaurant critic (and a major social media meltdown) sends Casper running for the open road - in a food truck - in search of his next course of action.
Favreau didn't just tie on an apron and step into the role as a seasoned chef. He put in hard hours on the line in chef Roy Choi's kitchens and food trucks, and brought him on as a consultant to achieve authenticity in everything from knife technique to kitchen culture.
Eatocracy spoke with Favreau about his lifelong obsession with food, connecting with family and the lengths he'll go to for a killer brisket. An edited transcript is below.
Eatocracy: Your character in the film spends a lot of time cooking food for people to show them how he feels about them. How conscious was that?
Jon Favreau: I had been thinking about the film “Eat Drink Man Woman” and Roy Choi pointed me to “Mostly Martha.” It's a German film about a female chef who is a complete emotional basket case and could not communicate, but had such passion in her food. She would feed everyone around her. It's almost like someone who couldn't speak scribbling on a piece of paper like in "The Piano."
There's something romantic about that and I think it’s reflective of what I've seen in the chefs I've known. The most accurate, sincere communicating they do is through their food.
Jon Favreau: From early on in my career, I've been exposed to the most wonderful aspects of each culture that I've visited, and I travel with people who are seasoned travelers. When I was traveling in Rome with Gwyneth Paltrow, she knew of a great restaurant and pulled me into it. Robert Downey brought me into a great restaurant in Paris. I've had a "small town boy does good" dream of being about to see all of those wonderful things.
But I didn't appreciate it in the same way until I traveled with chefs to other chefs' establishments. The experience grew exponentially. They know how to appreciate each others' work. When you're there with VIPs, you're flattered by the soigné treatment, but the subtlety of of each individual moment is lost.
I've watched Roy Choi eat several meals in a row, never turning something away. Chefs don't want to insult the chef who is serving them; there's a different set of responsibilities. It's like when filmmakers show films to other filmmakers.
Eatocracy: There does seem to be a lot of common ground between the emotional needs of chefs and artists, especially in seeking approval.
Jon Favreau: You would think people who think about "vision" and scoff at people who question their approach would be oblivious to other people's thoughts, but that couldn't be further from the truth. You could take the most opinionated chef who's the most creative and has fought people left and right on his vision - if he puts a dish out there and people don't like it or it gets sent back or doesn't get ordered, it is a stake to his heart.
It's a very complicated mix of a brash egocentricity and the desire to please and be accepted by others.
Eatocracy: Apart from enjoyment and sustenance, what has food meant in your life?
Jon Favreau: Food has has a light side and a dark side. The good side of it is that it's my connection to my Jewish and Italian heritage. I've learned a skill set and I could cook for myself when I was a bachelor. I can cook for my wife and my children. It gave me a basis to learn other cooking techniques which I'm doing now.
It's associated with family and holidays and getting together and creating a presence in the here and now. Everyone is experiencing something together, which is becoming more rare as everyone goes off with their iPads and plates of food in their individual corners. The idea of coming together to a table came from the cultural heritage I was handed down by both sides of my family.
The dark side is that food, if you have too much of it, or unhealthy food, can shorten your lifespan significantly and make you miserable. An obsession with food, if it's used as a crutch in life, and you don't have the proper relationship with it, can be something that's more dangerous than smoking.
Eatocracy: Where did your love for food come from?
Jon Favreau: It's just something that you inherit, I'm not sure if it's culturally or genetically. When I first made it in Hollywood, I told my grandfather about filming Rudy and how they had a hotel and a stand-in for me and lights and cameras and they fly you first class. He would say, "Explain this to me again, there's craft service, but that's not the meal? There's a meal as well that they serve you?"
Every question he had was about the food, and I'd laugh because it was his context. If we talked about a cruise ship it was how many meals they would have. If it was the Catskills, it was what they served. It's very Jewish.
But the Italian side also was about the cannoli and pasta and meatballs and making the sauce and cooking all day and who was going to help and who was coming over and who are you gonna bring and let's put more water in the soup and add some more chairs to the table. Everything was seen through those eyes.
Eatocracy: Have you passed down this familial trait to your own kids?
Jon Favreau: I go with my daughter. That's our hobby now. Me and my 11 year old will find the best noodle house we can find in any city. We've done it in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, the West Side. It's a fun bonding thing. I like noodles and she likes noodles but I think what we like is the shared experience of having a little adventure together.
When you're dating it was cool, like, "I've got this great Ethiopian restaurant down Fairfax!" In L.A. there are neighborhoods that people drive right past and don't even know are there. So you spend time on a date in Little Tokyo or Little Ethiopia. Food is one of the vices that's socially acceptable.
People of dating age don't have a lot of dough. If you can pull money together for a meal, that's a whole evening where you're not just sitting next to each other in a movie theater. You're talking and experiencing something together and learning about each other. You learn a lot about a person through that.
Everything that you experience dating gets woken up again when you have kids that are old enough to go out with. You want to impress them and you're introducing them to something cool and you're learning about them because they change every year.
Eatocracy: Your character in the movie has a son, Percy, with whom he connects with by putting him to work on a food truck. How deliberately did that mirror your own life?
Jon Favreau: That kid has aspects of me because my parents were divorced and you bond with your father through some form of apprenticeship. Whether you're both rooting for the same sports team or he takes you to work or you’re scraping the bottom of the boat or weeding the yard with your Dad - it's usually through work that you bond with your father as you hit the cusp of puberty. You're just a little gopher helper guy who's holding the flashlight while he's working on the car. That's how you remember your father - those are big moments with fathers and sons.
That kid is a combination of me experiencing that and being so confused about why my parents who seemed to get along so well weren't together. There's a sadness that I wanted to capture.
Eatocracy: Would you ever let your own kids work in a restaurant?
Sure! You've got to be a rich kid to have a shot at being a chef nowadays. The pay is so bad on the way up the ladder, you need somebody who's sponsoring you. Otherwise you're living like a vagabond. That's the account that really blows my mind as I read people's memoirs is how little it pays.
The people at the top are barely keeping their head above water and they're making all their money on the wine list. The nicer the restaurant, even if the menu prices are high, the food margins still remain very narrow.
You realize that people are in the restaurant business for passion. It is not the best way to amass wealth. It only works out well if you're really excited about what you do. I'd love to see my kids connect with something with such passion.
Eatocracy: In your film, women work in the front of house, but not the kitchen. Would you be happy to see your daughters work in a restaurant?
Jon Favreau: It requires tough women. They're entering into a culture that I don't think is going to shift for them. They're going to have to weather a pretty unforgiving, relentless environment. That being said, I think the culture is shifting and becoming less gender-specific.
It's also so multi-cultural and that's what I like about it. Everybody works together. It doesn't matter what your ethnic makeup is or your cultural background or what language you speak or what your gender is. If you can hang and you're good, and when you're in the weeds you can be counted on, that's what people judge you by. They don't judge you by the color of your skin, what gender you are or what your native language is.
Eatocracy: Just so long as you can speak kitchen Spanish!
Jon Favreau: That's right. I cannot remember a more thorough channel of communication than when a dishwasher who spoke no English handed me a deli container full of ice water in the middle of a shift when I was working the line. The kitchen was so hot and I was sweating so much. He looked me in the eye, gave it to me and nodded and I thanked him from the bottom of my heart. It was the best thing I ever drank in my life.
Eatocracy: Would you please address the rumors that you shot a scene at Austin's notoriously packed Franklin Barbecue just so Aaron Franklin would save you a brisket?
Jon Favreau: There might be some truth to that rumor. If not for the food, and not to wait in line, it was me thinking, "What's the coolest place (Carl) could bring his son?" I thought beignets in New Orleans and barbecue in Austin.
The big benefit is that I know Aaron now and he showed me how to slice a brisket and now I smoke my own brisket at home. It’s amazing to me is that you get such complex flavor out of the way that the meat caramelizes over time and the smoke. The less things you use, I think the flashier it is.
I started out with a Big Green Egg, which is great, but I want to try to do it with wood. I'm at the point where I'm just loading up my yard. I'm going to try a pellet smoker, I’m getting my Kalamazoo grill which is definitely an indulgence. Some people buy cars. I bought a grill.
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