Jon Favreau’s sweet-tempered new food-centric comedy, “Chef,” is a return to roots.
The man now known for directing big-budget box-office behemoths like the first two “Iron Man” movies as well as the effects-heavy flop “Cowboys and Aliens” — not to mention producing the third “Iron Man” movie and the NBC series “Revolution” — is harking back to his days as an indie-film hero, when he penned the 1996 cult hit “Swingers.”
The new movie, about a successful but burnt-out L.A. restaurant chef (played by Favreau) who starts over with a food truck to reconnect with his son, features some famous faces: Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman and Sofia Vergara among them. Still, it has the sensibility of a smaller, more personal production. Johansson doesn’t even get to drop-kick or shoot anybody.
“I saw how much fun people like Lena Dunham (“Girls”) and Larry David (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) were having doing a similar style of filmmaking,” Favreau, 47, explains by phone from Miami. “It made me feel excited and I wanted to do (a film like this) again.”
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He chose to focus on food culture, as it has long been an interest of his. After all, from 2001 to 2005, he hosted a series on IFC, “Dinner for Five,” in which he and different celebrities talked about acting while dining on a good meal. He also appeared as a judge on “Top Chef” last season.
“I’ve watched a lot of food movies — like ‘Eat, Drink, Man, Woman’ and ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’ — and it was something I wanted to do in some way,” he says. “But I also wanted to write a script about being a dad and being family. It all sort of locked together so I wrote the outline and I tried to write it like I did ‘Swingers,’ where you don’t let it all lay around too long (and just finish it).”
But after completing the script, he found his writing work wasn’t over. Celebrity L.A. chef Roy Choi, whose famous Kogi food truck is considered the pioneer in the trend, read it and said Favreau had no clue what a chef’s life is like. So, Choi was brought on as a consultant.
“The way my character would go to the farmers market was wrong. It isn’t like Belle in ‘Beauty and the Beast’ whimsically singing their way through the aisles. He’s more like a heat-seeking missile grabbing the products he wants — and he never wears a chef’s coat out of the kitchen,” Favreau recalls of many of the details he had to change. “He spent time showing me how to hold and fold a towel and he would get mad at me if I hit the spoon on the pan too loudly. When you’re too loud, it makes you seem too coarse and that you don’t have enough respect for the process.”
Almost equally as important as the depictions of food — don’t go to “Chef” hungry — was showing technology’s intrusion into the culinary process. Social media has transformed the relationship among cook, critic and customer. In a world where diners post photos of their meals instantly on Facebook and Instagram, even a chef’s minor missteps are amplified as they ricochet around the Internet. So, when Favreau’s character, Carl Casper, mindlessly tweets his outrage over a review by a critic (played by Oliver Platt), the fallout forces Casper to reconsider his previously uninformed view of technology.
“To me, there was so much comedic potential and opportunity for dramatic tension,” Favreau says. “In ‘Swingers,’ there were no cellphones and the answering machine was the most dangerous technology. This is like the exponential expansion of that. You can tweet something that ruins your life. He lights a fuse that he can’t put out.”
While “Chef” easily could not have left the borders of Los Angeles, Favreau decided to make it a road trip of sorts. Casper and a couple of his sous-chef pals (played by Bobby Cannavale and John Leguizamo) as well as his son (Emjay Anthony) take to the highway in their food truck, hitting New Orleans, Miami and Austin, Texas, in the process.
“A guy is taking his son on the road and what are the coolest cities to introduce your kid to?” Favreau asks, recalling how he came up with those particular destinations. “Little Havana (in Miami) is so different and New Orleans, with its music and food, and Austin has always been a favorite for barbecue and music. These have an interesting mix of people … For me, it was about flavor and places that inspire you.”
As much as Favreau enjoyed the low-scale charms of “Chef” — for once, he didn’t have to worry about CGI monsters and the like — he hasn’t turned his back on high-dollar Hollywood. His next project is a live-action take on “The Jungle Book.”
“Variety keeps things interesting for me,” he says. “It’s nice to use the tools that are available, like CGI. That’s very fascinating to me and you need a larger movie to do that.
“After working on the big ones, it’s fun to do a small one but with the big one — ‘Iron Man’ was a worldwide phenomenon — there’s a certain reassurance that comes from that. A little film can disappear in a very crowded marketplace,” he continues, reflecting on his first brush with success. “ ‘Swingers’ ultimately made (only) about $5 million at the box office and was considered disappointing until its DVD and video release.”