For a little over a decade, director/actor Jon Favreau has been cranking out big-time movies that satisfy critics and please popcorn-munching audiences alike. He directed Elf, which has now become a holiday institution; he launched the Iron Man franchise (as a director and actor) to uproarious success; and he had roles in comedies like Four Christmases, I Love You, Man, and Couples Retreat.
Scaling back from outsized comedies and CGI-laden Marvel blockbusters, Favreau goes back to his indie roots with his latest project, Chef. Packed with an all star cast (John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, Sofía Vergara, Oliver Platt, Amy Sedaris, Robert Downey Jr.) and painted with indie intimacy, the film reminds us of his earlier films like Swingers and Made that not only wrangled him a cult following, but gave him a name as a talented writer, director and actor.
In Chef, Favreau uses his trifecta of talent to tell the story of star chef Carl Casper (played by Favreau). After receiving a negative review, he uses Twitter to share his emotions about the criticism and things start to go into a downward spiral. It affects his career, his already estranged relationship with his son and his sanity. After hitting bottom, he starts to resuscitate his career with his own food truck. We had the opportunity to talk to him about the film, making the perfect grilled cheese, possibly reuniting with Vince Vaughn and bringing his short-lived dinner-with-celebs series “Dinner For Five” back to life.
Paste: Twitter has big part in Chef. Did you immediately know you wanted to include a social media component or were you experimenting with different ways to tell the story?
Jon Favreau: It is a big part of it, but it wasn’t like I wanted to make a social media movie. It seemed like it was part of the language—especially for the food truck world and the chef world. As a general rule, chefs are not good on social media. They tend to overshare or emotionally tweet or post something on Yelp, which leads to the blogs picking it up, which leads to all of this self-feeling, self-generating conflict that plays out over the course of months or years. It’s like when I did Swingers. I didn’t think about making a movie about an answering machine. That was part of my life at that time. In this movie, the relationships on Twitter and social media creates a differentiation between the dad’s and the son’s generation. The son is native to the digital age. The father is first dismissive of it, then enamored with it, then completely scared of it, then finally accepting. He’s going through all those stages of acceptance of death [laughs].
Paste: How is your relationship with social media and technology?
Favreau: I think that there is a moment right now for people my age who embrace technology, but it’s not native to them. I clearly remember a time before we were online, before even email. I’m one of those generations. It’s like people who remember before there were airplanes.
Paste: How did your relationship with Roy Choi come about?
Favreau: Roy Choi was the guy that I approached to help. I wrote the script. The story was pretty much what it is. I was looking for somebody to be a consultant. My team did a research on chefs and someone said, “You should check out Roy Choi.” I’d heard of his kogi truck and had actually eaten the food from it back during the filming of Iron Man 2. Gwyneth Paltrow had brought the truck to the set because she’s on GOOP and she knows all these things before they happen. She magically got this truck to appear—this truck that nobody could ever find. It was like a unicorn. Nobody had Twitter really then. Once you’re starting out it’s very hard to figure all that out.
Paste: Was he immediately interested in working with you?
Favreau: Roy’s story was very similar to what I had written. Almost too similar to the point where I was scared he wouldn’t want to do it. It’s about a guy who starts off as a traditional French Chef who eventually washes out in the food business, hits rock bottom, buys a taco truck and in [Roy’s] case he started making Korean-flavored tacos. He signed up for Twitter. It was, I think, ‘08 or ‘09. Next thing you know, he had 20 people, 100 people, 400 people lined up for his truck over the weeks. It was really social media meeting food truck culture. He was the first person to blaze that trail. I knew he could offer insight. I was worried that he would think that I was doing his story. I wrote it without knowing him! He could not have been cooler. He said it’s different enough.
Paste: What was one of the main things you took away from all your culinary training with Roy?
Favreau: There’s a mindfulness that a chef has when they cook. I’d written this whole scene about [my character] cooking this amazing grilled cheese sandwich for his son. Roy called out the ingredients of what kind of cheese, what kind of bread, what kind of butter and the way it was to be prepared. The food stylist handed me the grilled cheese sandwich. It looked like something that you would get at a lunch counter, at a cafeteria. I said, “This is it? I can’t film this! This looks like two pieces of cheese between the bread. It’s a toast!” [laughs] Roy looked at the sandwich and said, “Give me a minute.” He took the same ingredients and coached me on how to make the grilled cheese from his perspective, which is almost like somebody who is doing meditation—like a Buddhist saint painting on the sidewalk. That’s how he treats making a grilled cheese sandwich. He finished the sandwich and out came this gold and delicious thing which is cheese cascading out of the sides. The crust golden to the point if you cooked for five more seconds it would have been burned.
Paste: It did look like the best grilled cheese ever made.
Favreau: It must have been four ounces of butter in that thing. It was just perfect. That’s when I realized when a chef cooks something, even a grilled cheese sandwich, there is attentiveness and a presence in the moment that they have and a care that they put in. They don’t put it on the stove, walk away, make a phone call, come back. They focus completely on these things.
Paste: You’re planning to reunite with Vince Vaughn take close the Swingers/Made trilogy?
Favreau: I don’t know. We’ve been talking about it. I just did a film that Peter Billingsley was directing that Vince is producing, filmed down in Atlanta. It’s called Term Life. I filmed that after I did Chef. I’ll be in that film. We’ve been “off-cycle” I guess [laughs]. I’ve popped into his films. I’ve tried to stay involved with his career. He’s been much more of a filmmaker lately. When we started off, I was writing and he was an actor. Then he eventually was coming up with stories for things like The Breakup, Four Christmases, and Couples Retreat. I’ve been trying to stay on his train a bit and be part of his stuff.
Paste: Have you ever thought about bringing “Dinner For Five” back?
Favreau: I would love to do “Dinner for Five” again. I wonder how it would fit in right now. Part of what was fun about it was that we had tried to appeal everybody, just movie fans. It was especially fun because nobody was doing anything like it at the time. Now we have the same thing with the podcasts: long-form conversations with interesting people who are talking and not concerned about losing the fringe audience. They can speak right to their fans and right to people who are experts in whatever field they’re talking about. I like that kind of conversation.
Paste: The show brought about some awesome candid conversations.
Favreau: Yes. I’m very proud of it. People were discovering it now. We did about 50 episodes. It was great! It showed the relationship between conversation and food—I guess it was part of the beginnings of my curiosity that led to me making this film.
Chef is currently in theaters.