‘Chef’ and the redefining of starving artist

Talk about food for the Seoul.
May 14, 2014

Talk about food for the Seoul.

For decades, writer/director/actor Jon Favreau has been a staple in the film world, indie and beyond. All over the map, he appeared alongside Keanu Reeves in The Replacements and in other kooks like Daredevil, then turned around and directed the likes of Elf and Iron Man, leaving no waters uncharted.

But his 1996 breakthrough Swingers is responsible for launching him, alongside Vince Vaughn, into their celebrities today. Ripe with risk and resolve, Swingers is the cult classic that gave Favreau his early street cred. He wrote Chef in just a few weeks, about the same time he took to write Swingers, further mounting evidence that the most candid and sincere creations come from a free-flowing and unedited union of heart and mind.

He can also lasso a stacked cast — with Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr. gracing the bill. But that the powerhouses have only minor roles embodies Chef’s courage and refreshing self-esteem, further contributing to its multifaceted authenticity.

Chef Carl Casper (Favreau) is a renegade in the culinary industry, respected for both his expertise and fearlessness in the kitchen. His top-doggedness comes complete with a lovable and loyal staff, and independence the rule of thumb in day-to-day kitchen operations. He makes a decent living as chef de cuisine at a Los Angeles restaurant, serving upscale comfort food to patrons the majority of which are happy to fork over an extra $100 to substitute the green beans for haricots verts. As par for the course, he has an unrealized relationship with his son (Emjay Anthony) and a suggestive one with his hostess (Johansson). He’s divorced to a Miami mami (Sofia Vergara), but she isn’t bitter and they remain friends. Things are fine.

Until the most respected food blogger in the city, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), writes a review as hurtful as his reputation is oxymoronic. He calls out @ChefCarlCasper for his unapologetic neediness manifested in a caviar egg “meant to impress the country club brunch crowd,” and posits that his “dramatic weight gain is best explained by the fact that he must be eating all the food sent back to the kitchen.”

Chefs, as all artists, are a sensitive people. Despite Carl’s intuitive backlash against serving the traditional menu Ramsey is ultimately treated to, which included fan-favorites French onion soup and a filet, rounded out with true-blue chocolate lava cake, he let himself be convinced by the restaurant owner Riva (Hoffman) to “play the hits.”

But Ramsey can’t be bought with uninspired plates of yesteryear, so up went the review and down went Carl. Tweets were catapulted, ganache lava strewn and publicists summoned.

Chef is a movement, an homage to a punk-rock mentality where the only way to create from a true heart without constraints of the corporate stronghold is to burn down the establishment and start again with the ashes. Only when you’re truly lost can you start to find yourself — and Carl’s rude awakening from his safe and half-hearted complacency finds him rubbing his eyes open to a versatile domain without those constraints, with the people who matter most.

Growing up in an Italian and Jewish family, the film industry veteran has early emotional attachments to the romance of food. His inspiration was born from the inherent similarities between the restaurant business and the filmmaking business. If ever there was a clan of artists who lamented the value of commercial success over creative fulfillment as much as filmmakers, it’s the chefs. What begins as a journey of constant discovery and endless opportunity for growth, be it in the kitchen behind a saucepan or on set behind a camera, is traded in for a repetitive, mundane ride on the respective industry’s Lazy Susan. As Carl bemoans his restaurant’s creative rut, citing a menu that hasn’t changed in five years, Riva — the owner, the bank, the one who finances the kitchens and saucepans and sets and cameras — has a responsibility to minimize unnecessary risks. He and most others in his position didn’t get to where they are by fixing what isn’t broken.

So offers Riva, “Be an artist on your own time.”     

But all professions are shackled to a bottom line one way or another.  For Favreau, the more poignant comparison is both fields’ total dependence, intrinsic and otherwise, on the preferences and whims of others for success.

“All of their (chefs) happiness is linked to other people, same with filmmaking,” he said during a recent Q-and-A at the ArcLight Hollywood theater.

One of the most intimate, vulnerable gestures for an artist is to show their work and ask for feedback. To witness their labors of love stand trial is to withstand a whirlwind of simultaneous thrill and terror; all validation rides on the verdict. Nothing else matters to them except conveying their vision — for them, if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, the perceived silence burns the whole forest down.

Facing unfavorable verdicts along the way is inevitable, and overcoming an incinerated ego left in failure’s wake is not an easy or pretty feat, as demonstrated by the fallout of Carl and Ramsey’s physical and cyber food fight. But positive feedback and the feeling of resounding encouragement is a powerful drug, and when it comes, the grind is avenged and pain of the past dissipates into a purple haze.

“I may not have been the best husband, and I’m sorry if I wasn’t the best father to you, but I’m good at this. I get to touch people every day with what I do. And I love it.”

The self-aware yet idealistically hopeful Chef truly is a class-act. Favreau wanted the respect of the chef community, explaining that only a small niche need appreciate the efforts to make those efforts worth it. He knew he couldn’t bluff an art form as specific and honest as cooking, nor did he want to, so he decided to undertake the transformation from passive eater to well, active feeder. And who better to show him the ropes than local culinary royalty Roy Choi, the man behind the elusive, gourmet Korean Kogi truck and one of the founders of the celebrated food truck movement. Choi’s food first entered Favreau’s life on the set of Iron Man 2 — Hollywood foodie Gwyneth Paltrow had called in the Kogi to feed the crew, and Choi showed his taste buds no mercy.

Soon after, Favreau rode along with Choi for a night on the food truck circuit, a night Choi, who joined Favreau at ArcLight, described as practice rounds of drop off the money, pick up the laundry a la The Sopranos. He’d taken a bite, and the bite bit him. He decided the film was a go. Choi then sent him to an accelerated French cooking program and he worked his way up the line, until he could prove to master Choi he was the real deal. Every last crumb, shank, pickled onion and parsley snip pictured was cooked — and eaten — on set.

With Choi acting as chief consultant on all things kitchen — from food prep to line cook lingo (Chef is rated R for language, Favreau was told any movie about cooking that has a PG rating is bullshit), from farmers market etiquette to a chef’s tattoos, the movie captures the rich culture behind the seasonings. John Leguizmo as Martin, Sancho Panza to Carl’s Quixote, is a deliciously executed side dish, and Bobby Cannavale brings a toned-down though no less-welcomed version of Cannavalian flair.

So few movies have the attentiveness required to convey the heart of our day to day. Chef devotes itself fully to that attentiveness. Visibly excited to get back to his Swingers roots, in Favreau’s case, sticking to the traditional menu doesn’t disappoint.