It was the knife work. The way he smeared a dab of sauce across the plate with the back of a spoon. Jon Favreau’s moves were too smooth. The actor-turned-screenwriter-turned-blockbuster-director, is also a professionally trained chef? No way. I began looking for the “tells” of a body double.
“Chef,” Favreau’s new film, shot in one month, is a trip back to his indie-film roots when 18 years ago the work-a-day actor wrote himself out of that rut with the cult hit “Swingers.” Directing “Iron Man” catapulted him onto Hollywood’s A-list, wattage that is evident in the “Chef” cast, which includes Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson and Dustin Hoffman.
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But what makes this fairly predictable father/son feel-good road trip so engaging is the authenticity of the kitchen scenes and those chefy moves. Unlike most food flicks, “Chef” is not food porn. Favreau’s chef Carl Casper handles food with skill and respect — and you leave the theater desperate for a melty Cuban sandwich, sweet plantains and a cold beer.
“Ever since I read [Anthony Bourdain’s memoir] ‘Kitchen Confidential,’ I have been intrigued by the chef world,” Favreau told the sold-out audience opening night at Hollywood’s ArcLight Cinemas. He dashed off the screenplay in a couple of weeks, congratulating himself for such an original story — a celebrated chef, trained in the French culinary tradition, who decides to chuck it all to cook the food he loves out of a food truck … and ends up with a rock star career.
Favreau soon learned his “original” idea mirrored the life of Los Angeles chef Roy Choi. One afternoon, Favreau stopped by the raw space in Koreatown where Choi was pacing out a new restaurant, Pot, his ode to Korean cuisine. Favreau’s plan was to make Choi a consultant on the film and avoid a lawsuit for stealing his story.
“He just showed up by himself,” said Choi, who joined Favreau for the opening night Q&A. After they talked, “he got in my car — which surprised me because it’s a beat old car — he just followed me around all night.”
Six hours on the town with Choi
Kogi BBQ trucks made Choi a Los Angeles hero and paved the way for his other places in the area: the college casual Chego; 3 Worlds Cafe in South L.A.; the neighborhood bistro A-Frame; Caribbean-flavored Sunny Spot; and his late night lounge, Alibi Room. That night, Favreau made the circuit with him. “I just showed him little bits and pieces to see if he thought what we were doing was interesting,” Choi said. “I was just trying to show him what I was about. Chefs are really transparent. We’ve got nothing to hide.”
Favreau agreed, saying, “Roy showed me everything. We were out for six hours that night. I tasted a lot of food. And it was amazing food. That’s the thing, you want to eat it all.”
Favreau sent Choi the script. “You know, I’m a fairly successful director and Roy started going after it,” Favreau said. “He red-lined the whole thing.” Chefs don’t wear their whites to the farmers market, Choi chided him. “And here you have the chef smelling the ingredients. You’re not Belle in ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ ” Choi said.
Choi insisted on more than script changes. He would sign on to help only after Favreau went to cooking school. “My first day studying at the culinary academy was learning how to tie your apron. It is almost a martial art. Where you tie it, how tight,” Favreau recalled. “Roy told me you can tell whether you are a chef by how you hold a towel. And the whites. Keeping the whites clean.”
On the set, Choi showed up every day that involved cooking. The food couldn’t just look good; it had to taste good too. Choi created every dish that appears in the film and insisted that his food not be treated as a prop. The cast and crew would eat it. “Nothing was wasted,” Favreau said. “He kept everything up to restaurant standards. That pig we cut up? We parceled it out and gave it to the crew. Respect for the food permeated the culture on the set.”
As an actor, Favreau schooled himself in Choi. “I watched Roy and emulated everything he did. Every tattoo on chef Carl was approved by Roy,” he noted. The makeup artists added “burns” on his forearms, the mark of a working chef. “I worked from the inside out,” Favreau said.
Favreau’s last chef test
His final exam: joining Choi’s prep crew when he did a three chef tasting menu with Wolfgang Puck and David Chang. “No one knew I was there,” Favreau said. “At the end of the night they noticed me and they were busting my balls. David Chang noticed my whites were dirty.”
Slowly, Favreau found his way from acting like a chef to feeling the part.
“Once I realized his heart and his mind and his soul were open to [being a chef], that’s half the battle,” Choi said. “His movements changed once he got down with how a chef’s mind is working with so many different things going on. We have eyes in the back of our heads. By doing that, his body language changed.”
There was no body double.
Main photo: A scene from “Chef” with Emjay Anthony, left, and Jon Favreau. Credit: Open Road Films