Cast: Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr, Scarlett Johnansson, Sofia Vergara
Director: Jon Favreau
Running Time: 115 minutes
Synopsis: Chef follows the temperamental Carl Casper (Favreau), a prestigious name in the world of food who falls from grace and ends up starting his own food truck to recapture his flair, integrity and reconnect with his family. Casper was once a promising star in the culinary world, whose artistic aptitude has long been restrained by an overbearing restaurant proprietor (Hoffman). With his passion for cooking wilting, Carl's career takes a turn for the worse, when a prominent food critic targets the uninspired Chef with a provocative review. Outraged by his comments, Carl takes to twitter and goes head to head with him in an online battle, which he unknowingly broadcasts to thousands of followers.
Disillusioned with his career and desperate to escape the social media circus that he inadvertently created, Carl agrees to accompany his ex-wife Inez (Vergara) and son to Miami. As his passion for cooking reignites, an opportunity to start up a food truck business presents itself and Carl begins to re-establish his artistic promise and at the same time, reconnect with his family. With an all-star cast including Jon Favreau, Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson, Sofia Vergara and Robert Downey Jr, Chef serves up a delectable feast of drama and laughs.
Release Date: May 8th, 2014
Jon Favreau began his filmmaking career nearly two decades ago, writing and starring with Vince Vaughn in the seminal hipster comedy, Swingers. After that he made his directorial debut with the self-scripted Made, then helmed his first big studio project in 2003 with the instant holiday classic Elf, starring Will Ferrell. More recently, Jon Favreau effectively launched Marvel's superhero franchise by directing the first two Iron Man blockbusters.
With Chef, the filmmaker has taken a break from big-budget extravaganzas to return to his indie roots. 'I wanted to write a screenplay from scratch, let the characters speak in the voices I gave them, cast the people who I wanted to work with and then see where that led me," says Jon Favreau. And so, after executive producing Iron Man 3 and The Avengers, Jon Favreau has brought to the screen the story of Carl Casper, a gifted chef who finds himself stymied by both professional and personal frustrations.
Embracing the spirit of 1996 cult favourite Swingers, Jon Favreau saw Chef as an opportunity to tell an intimate story about a flawed hero, with an adult audience in mind. 'I haven't made a small movie like this in a very long time," he says. 'I thought it would be interesting to bring the skills I've developed to this type of project. I wanted to try something on a different scale and face a different set of challenges that would keep me sharp and grounded."
Setting Chef against the backdrop of Los Angeles' booming food-truck subculture was a natural choice for Jon Favreau. As a longtime fan of food culture, he hosted and produced IFC Network's 2002 'Dinner for Five" series, filmed on location in some of Los Angeles' most iconic fine-dining establishments. That world of high-end cuisine serves as the glossy jumping off point for Chef Carl, as he leaves the safety net of a big restaurant to become captain of his own food truck.
During pre-production research, Jon Favreau discovered that chefs often display the same obsessive drive he'd encountered in type-A show business personalities. 'I found a lot of similarities between the movie world and the culinary world," he observes. 'In both cases you're dealing with the creative process. With Chef, we're watching a character who wants to have an original creative voice."
Coming off his string of studio-managed motion pictures, Jon Favreau savoured the opportunity to exercise complete creative control over Chef. 'Making a small film is like writing a novel, doing a painting or putting up a play, anything you can control because the resources that you require are not that great," says Jon Favreau, who cites triple-threat writer-director- performers Larry David, Lena Dunham and Louis C.K. as models of creative autonomy.
Giving up big budget perks–and the accompanying constraints–to make Chef on a more modest scale, Jon Favreau says he wanted to reinvigorate his creative mojo, much as Chef Carl trades the security of a fancy restaurant gig for the freedom to follow his own muse into the realm of low-overhead street food.
'In the case of Chef, it's the food truck that allows Carl to explore his creative instincts," says the writer-director. 'The guy goes from working in this very successful restaurant where he's making a lot of money but isn't being creatively challenged to try something closer to his own passions. I found that a lot of chefs share that passion."
Where the autobiographically tinged Swingers channelled Jon Favreau's experiences as a twenty-something single actor moving to Los Angeles, Chef reflects the filmmaker's interests as a creative, middle-aged family man. 'For the way I work as a director, you've got to really connect in some way and relate to the characters," he says.
Chef Carl Casper represents the road not taken, says Jon Favreau. 'If I had made different decisions in my life about ten years ago, I would've been closer to who Carl is in the film. I made decisions early on not to travel out of town when the family was in school and to prioritise the personal aspects of my life. Carl's divorced. I've never been divorced but I have three kids, so as a father I relate to Carl on that level."
Jon Favreau says he also relates to Carl's decision to prioritise freedom over monetary gains or prestige. 'Part of that bargain is that you have to be happy with the fact that you're going to let the outcome land where it does, because it's tough to go up against the big boys. But if you feel creatively satisfied and you're growing as an artist, that, I think, is the hero's journey. It's about growth."
Pimp My Food Truck
To ensure that Chef Casper's immersion into food truck culture felt authentic, Jon Favreau turned to the king of Los Angeles' street food scene, Roy Choi. Winner of Food & Wine Magazine's 2010 Best New Chef award, Roy Choi pioneered the concept of gourmet fast food by embracing social media to promote local appearances of his Kogi BBQ Taco Truck.
'To really represent a chef on the movie screen, you've got to know what it feels like to be a cook," says Roy Choi. 'You've got to know how it feels to stand on your feet and work and sit down on a milk crate and eat and drink out of a deli cup."
Preparing himself for his fictional gig as boss of the 'El Jefe" food truck, Jon Favreau went to work incognito at Kogi BBQ. 'The first time on the truck, it was small and hot and I felt like I was in the way," he says. 'By the end, I was in there yelling out orders and helping out."
Dressed in the Kogi cook uniform, complete with bandana headband, Jon Favreau managed to avoid recognition by the hundreds of patrons he served. 'This one guy was like -Do I know you?' And I'm like -Usually I work on the Philly Cheese Steak Truck.' And he goes, -Oh, okay'."
Likening his advisory role in the Chef project to that of baseball manager Don Zimmer, Roy Choi offered Jon Favreau expert advice on everything from knife selection to tattoo design. 'I fed Jon all those little nuances," he says, 'Down to the girls we hang out with, the way we tie our aprons, the way we wear our jeans, the cigarettes we smoke, the language we use, the food we serve."
And if 'Chef Carl" tried to get fancy, Roy Choi reined him in. 'Every time Jon Favreau made things too pretty, I'd tell him to let me know when to come in and dirty it up and make it real," Roy Choi recalls. 'We'd go back and forth until we found that sweet spot. It was really about respecting what's going on here in L.A."
When he was originally approached about consulting on Chef, Roy Choi worried that genuine food truck grit might get watered down by Hollywood-style glitz. But Jon Favreau quickly won him over. 'We got in my car together and drove around L.A. for six hours that first night," Choi recalls. 'Jon started talking about Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, Babette's Feast and Big Night, all these films that took the beauty of food and really translated it for the audience. He wanted to do the same with Chef."
Location, Location, Location
Jon Favreau's commitment to the particulars of food culture extended to his insistence on filming iconic eateries"both the rolling and stationary variety"in real locations. 'If you're going to make a movie about chefs," he explains, 'part of the deal is you've got to make it authentic to that world. The minute you generalise you start to lose these intangible little aspects. I said, -I want to shoot it where it feels truthful, on Abbott Kinney in Venice, California, where you've got -First Fridays' *the popular food truck gathering+ in the parking lot of the Brig.'"
Jon Favreau initially pictured the entire Chef saga unfolding in Los Angeles, but his story expanded in scope to incorporate a cross-country road trip for Carl and his son Percy, played by Emjay Anthony (It's Complicated, TV's 'Rake").
'When we shot Iron Man 3," Jon Favreau recalls, 'We spent a wonderful night in Miami's Little Havana at Hoy Como Ayer, so that was in my mind when I set out to write the screenplay. It all just fell out of my head. The reason I set scenes in Little Havana, the Marigny neighborhood in New Orleans, Franklin Barbecue and Guero's in Austin is because those restaurants felt to me like beacons of something authentic."
Jon Favreau adds, 'When I point out Frenchman Street in New Orleans, that's the place that I wrote in the script. We're not just on a block because they let us shoot there. We towed our truck all the way there so we could have that moment. The specificity was very important to me."
The places Carl and Martin and Percy stop as they wend their way back to L.A. give Carl an opportunity to share his culinary passions with his young son. 'I wanted to find places that would inspire Carl and bond him with Percy. That's what a good dad does. It's like -These things are cool. Here's a life experience. Let me share this with you. When I'm long gone you're still going to have these memories.'"
Cooking Up A Stellar Cast
By the time Jon Favreau embarked on the month-long Chef shoot in late summer 2013 with cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau (Game of Thrones, Thor: The Dark World), costume designer Laura Jean Shannon (Iron Man) and production designer Denise Pizzini (Like Water for Chocolate), he'd assembled a crack ensemble cast to portray the characters who alternately enrage and inspire Chef Carl Casper.
John Leguizamo came on board to portray feisty Cuban grill cook Martin. Acclaimed for his kinetic one-man show Ghetto Klown and voice-over work in the Ice Age movies, John Leguizamo researched the role in Los Angeles at the A-Frame and Sunny Spot restaurants. He also tried less successfully to embed himself behind the scenes at the intensely competitive Manhattan eatery, The Lion. 'I tried to work in a New York kitchen, and I wasn't having it. It was mad dangerous. It was so tight. Everything's hot. Everything's sharp. And they're running on adrenaline, all eight cylinders. You just don't want to throw yourself in there being an amateur because I'm either gonna hurt somebody or hurt myself."
A fan of New York City food trucks like Gorilla Cheese, Dingus Truck and Mud Coffee, John Leguizamo responded to the film's chef-as-artist metaphor. 'Jon Favreau and I talked about how food is like art, and how cooking is in a way the same thing as acting," John Leguizamo says. 'Some actors are out for themselves and glory. And then there are those actors who are artists. They're not doing it for the glory, but for the art. They're trying to say something, trying to change the world. For this man to find himself as an artist, as a chef, as a man and as a dad who wants give his son a little bit of his culture back because his son is like half Latin"that's a beautiful journey."
Jon Favreau's portrait of contemporary foodie culture would be incomplete without a nod to the frequently adversarial relationship between restaurateur and blogger. In Chef, Casper's viral-age nemesis arrives in the form of snarky food critic Ramsey Michel, played by Oliver Platt (Frost/Nixon, TV's 'West Wing").
Oliver Platt's brother Adam is the real-life and renowned restaurant critic for New York Magazine. Naturally, actor Oliver Platt showed Jon Favreau's screenplay to critic Oliver Platt for a reality check. 'My brother read the script and really liked it," Oliver Platt notes. 'Jon Favreau was very interested in getting the language, the tone of the review right. We had to find something in there that would trigger Chef Casper's reaction, something that he couldn't shake, something that stuck like Velcro."
Ramsey Michel's nasty review leads to a viral video meltdown that sets Chef Carl on a new path. Favreau himself has nearly 1.7 million Twitter followers and uses the Vine app to post six-second video clips. But in Chef, he chose to emphasise social media's darkly hilarious side.
'Ramsey Michel engages in this Twitter war like it's theater or pro wrestling, thinking Carl is a willing participant," says Oliver Platt. 'It's disingenuous to say, -You weren't supposed to take it personally.' Of course you're gonna take it personally!"
Oliver Platt appreciated Chef's street-food theme, since much of his childhood was spent traveling around various Far East countries where his father served as American ambassador. 'When you move around to a lot of different countries, street food is how you really figure out where you are," he says. 'It's so unpretentious. Poetically, it makes so much sense that Jon's character goes to work on a food truck to get his groove back. There's something deft and wonderfully old-fashioned about Chef. It's like a Billy Wilder movie but told in a very fresh, modern way."
To capture the rough-and-tumble energy of actual street-food venues, Jon Favreau encouraged his co-stars to improvise at will. Trained at Chicago's famed Second City comedy club, Jon Favreau coaxed free-wheeling performances from Vince Vaughn in his 2001 film Made, then collaborated with Robert Downey Jr. to infuse the Iron Man and Iron Man 2 with lively, high-level banter rarely found in superhero pictures. For Chef, Favreau again invited the cast to improvise once they'd nailed the scene as written on the page.
'What's in the script is one thing, but when you improvise, a lot of stuff that you're feeling subconsciously will come out," he says. 'I find many of the most poignant moments are things that exist only in one or two takes."
Amy Sedaris, who performed with Favreau at Second City and later appeared in his 2003 Will Ferrell comedy Elf, plays Carl's ex-wife's fast-talking publicist, Jen, in Chef. 'Jon Favreau's very supportive of improvisers," says the actress. 'He's always saying -We'll get this take, and then do whatever you want. Do one for yourself.' It's always great to work with someone who's open to that."
John Leguizamo adds, 'Jon Favreau is the guy who was kind of Larry David before Larry David. He gives you a structure and then you just improvise. It's a lot of fun."
The ability to offer up multiple variations on a comedic or dramatic theme appealed to Jon Favreau the director, as well as Jon Favreau the actor. 'When you're the central character of a film, you want to the ability to choose and modulate performances without eliminating lines, almost like you would mix tracks for a piece of music. So I gave myself a spectrum of performances within each setup, often playing different emotions through the same scene."
In addition to improv maestro Robert Downey Jr., who enjoys a Chef cameo, Iron Man 2 star Scarlett Johansson shares on-screen sparks with Carl in her role as Molly, the floor manager at Gauloises. 'In my research with chefs, I learned that it's an extremely intense job," says Jon Favreau. 'They work for so many hours and they come off the shift and they're completely racing. So a lot of chefs go out drinking afterwards. When you've got the front of the house mixing with the kitchen staff, things happen."
Carl's ex-wife Inez is played by world-class beauty, Sofia Vergara ('Modern Family"). Jon Favreau says he wrote the part with the former model *Vergara+ in mind. 'I think you get away with a certain amount because the guy's a good chef and chefs right now are kind of like rock stars," he says.
For Sofia Vergara, the opportunity to join the cast of Chef proved irresistible. 'I said yes before I even read the script because I've wanted to work with Jon Favreau for a long time," she says. 'Finding out he was writing and directing and acting was very exciting to me."
The Colombian-born actress felt an instant kinship with Inez. 'She's a mother and I am a mother so I totally understand where all her fear and all her worry comes from," says Sofia Vergara. 'Inez gives Carl the little push he needs to get out of the hole he was in. Their dynamic is pretty much about two adults who are trying to make everything better for their son."
Percy Casper, played by 10-year old Emjay Anthony (It's Complicated, 'Rake"), makes no secret about his crush on Sofia Vergara. 'The first day I met Sofia Vergara," he recalls, 'I was in shock. My jaw hit the floor for like 20 minutes. Then I got to hug her over and over and over so that was a good beginning."
Emjay Anthony adapted easily to Jon Favreau's improvisational approach and even came up with a few of his own scenarios in between takes. 'I made a ring for Sofia Vergara out of a dollar bill in origami, got on my knees and proposed to her," he recalls. 'Her exact words were, -Oh, that's very nice. Is that the hundred dollar bill?'"
Percy's onscreen relationship with Carl proved more challenging as they try to bond despite their fractured family background. The problematic father-son relationship came into full focus for Favreau over the course of several lengthy conversations with Dustin Hoffman. The two-time Oscar® winner, who plays imperious restaurant owner Riva, pointed out thematic similarities between Chef and one of his most famous films. 'To have Dustin Hoffman's perspective on Kramer vs. Kramer"I hadn't even considered that when I wrote Chef," admits Jon Favreau. 'But then I just smacked my head: -Of course this movie shares so much with Kramer vs. Kramer in that they both speak to divorce and the child and the relationship with the absentee parent. They're about building those bridges."
Ultimately, Jon Favreau envisions Chef as a cautionary tale with a happy ending. 'I've seen the price that's paid by people who invest completely in their career and don't try to achieve a balance," he says. 'Predictably, things happen"like divorce, like estrangement from your children. It's humbling to be in service to other people and other things that are bigger than just your own concerns. Chef is really a story about a guy who's reconnecting with that understanding. The food world is very cinematic. To learn more about it as a filmmaker, and to play this character as an actor, at my age"I think it's kind of romantic, in a way, and of our time."
Release Date: May 8th, 2014