Hot off the grill, steak and a movie

Hot off the grill, steak and a movie

Hot off the grill, steak and a movie

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 was to be shown at the Tribeca Film Festival, before opening commercially this month. There undoubtedly were marketing matters to attend to, promotion to do, 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.

If that sounds a little, well, uplifting, what’s the point of picking up a sauté pan unless you are going to go for it? Favreau may have been finished with his role as a chef, but he was still acting like one, going dewy over the little white radish garnish and talking about the fat content of the meat. Whether as producer, director or actor, he 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 us rest two leviathans: 1.5-pound rib-eyes.

Favreau did comedy in Chicago and landed a few small roles in movies and television before he wrote Swingers for himself and Vince Vaughn. Things have gone mighty well since. But his kitchen skills are of a more recent vintage. An indifferent cook when he began Chef, he received six weeks of formal training, worked in a few restaurants run by the Los Angeles chef Roy Choi to learn how to stay out of the way and pitch in, and then hopped inside one of Choi’s Kogi BBQ trucks. “He did a good job of populating our whole world, which is a promise he made me when he decided to do this movie and ask for my help,” Choi said.

“He got everything right, including all the little OCD tics that chefs have.”
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 reported budget of more than $160 million and poor reviews, it was deemed a disappointment. Given all this, it’s not a long walk to the conceit of Chef, which suggests that small can be not only beautiful, but also better for the soul.

“Yeah, there’s a little of that, but I never felt betrayed or caught off-guard by that part of my career,” he said. “There is no free lunch, so if you’re playing with the big train set — on big movies — it’s a lot of money they’re entrusting you with, and you have to get that money back for them. I don’t take that responsibility lightly.”

“But 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. “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. He had plenty of talent around him.

“Who wouldn’t want to do something with him?” John Leguizamo, who plays the trusty grill cook and wingman, said. “Jon made Swingers, which is the kind of movie we all hope to be in. And the script he wrote is a classic journey that we all take, from narcissism and self-involvement to relinquishing all that,” then finding “what you wanted to be in the first place.”

Chef goes deep into the chopped and sautéed glories of life in the back of the restaurant, with an opening that makes reference to “Eat Drink Man Woman.” Favreau said he could live with any review of Chef, as long as people who work in restaurants think he got kitchen life right.

While the verisimilitude of a working kitchen fills every corner of 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. Hoffman plays the bean-counting restaurant owner. The value and perils of criticism, now supercharged by social media, are very much a featured part of the Chef menu. Favreau said, “A thoughtful piece of criticism by somebody who understands the context of what you are doing is a tremendous gift and honour to read, even if they don’t completely embrace your work.”