If you started following the career of Jon Favreau from his breakthrough role as Mikey in his screenwriting debut, Swingers, then fell into a coma for the subsequent 18 years, then the sort of movie you'd expect to see him release in 2014 is probably a small-scale personal project in which he plays a flawed, artistic type who tries to balance his neuroses with his drive for success. You'd get that movie in Chef, his new film (which he also directed) in which he stars as celebrity chef Carl Casper. But what you'd have missed is that, rather than follow an expected trajectory, Favreau's pursuit of a low-budget, human-scale story is actually a major departure for the filmmaker: in the years between Swingers and Chef, Favreau directed the Christmastime mainstay Elf, the first two Iron Man films (he executive produced the third), and, most recently, Harrison Ford's Cowboys & Aliens.
So how did Favreau create the spiritual follow-up to Swingers (albeit with a cast that represents a successful couple of decades in Hollywood: co-stars include John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, Robert Downey Jr., Sofia Vergara, Scarlett Johansson, and Dustin Hoffman) nearly two decades later? The answer required Favreau to find the sort of inspiration that his on-screen celebrity chef counterpart found in a food truck.
Before Favreau looked in the food truck, he looked to the creative world he wasn't connected to: Namely, the foodie culture that he—like seemingly everybody else in America—has grown entranced with.
"I had already been thinking a lot about doing a piece about a chef," he says. "I've been trying to work a chef into different things I was writing, because I really like that type of character. He wasn't going to be the lead, and it certainly wasn't going to be something I was going to play, but I just had kept wanting to work it into different projects—but it never took. Nothing ever happened with any of them. I was working towards that world. If I'm curious about something, it's fun to do the research and give it dimension."
For Favreau, "research" involved watching a lot of Top Chef and reading a lot of Anthony Bordain—and cooking under the tutelage of Roy Choi, creator of the Kogi Korean taco truck. "It was re-reading some books about food, about the experience of what a chef was, and culinary training—complete immersion," he says. "That's why you have to really like your subject matter—if you're going to completely immerse in it, it's got to be exciting."
Favreau—who says that he followed up the Chef experience by installing a commercial-grade kitchen in his own home—had half of the story once he decided to make a movie about a celebrity chef. The other half came when he found the parallels that character possessed to his own life.
"I had been wanting to do something about fatherhood, divorce, struggle, and what it's like at this stage in life—20 years after that last one I did—that's just a snapshot of what my life is, in a very naturalistic way where I could have observations that could just flow without trying to make it fit into another context," Favreau explains. "That's what happens when you're a hired gun—if you're writing about the revolution, you've got to research the revolution, and try to speak from those characters' positions. But when you write something like Swingers, you can just write about dating and Los Feliz and Hollywood, so those were the two things that were floating, and then something clicked."
Favreau found that writing about his own life, or the life of a filmmaker, held little appeal to him. But by seeking out the chef character, he had something that he could make visually compelling and connect the themes he was interested in to.
"I didn't feel like my life was something I could write about," he says. "Moviemaking wasn't something I was interested in, and just parenthood alone wasn't enough—nothing was particularly interesting about my life right now. It's kind of boring. Then, somehow those two things paired up in my head and it was like, 'Oh, what chefs go through'—somebody's who's intensely devoted to their career, who's put the family on a back burner. I came from divorce, so there was a lot that I had in the back of my mind that came through the son, remembering what it was like, that feeling you had."
Chef is a movie about food and families, but it's also a road movie. The plot centers around Favreau, as Carl Casper, bonding with his young son (played by Emjay Anthony) as he drives the food truck he's poured his passion into from Miami to Los Angeles. And, Favreau says, once he figured out that this was a film about the places they stopped along the way, the rest of the project opened up for him.
"The other missing piece of the puzzle was I had gone to Miami to film Iron Man 3, and I had been taken on a tour of Little Havana by one of Robert Downey's friends," Favreau explains. "That experience, and going to that place and hearing that kind of music, it was like, "What a great backdrop for a turning point," and what an interesting, vibrant thing if I captured this. So that got written in as a turning point for the couple. There was something wonderfully romantic about the idea of a father and son ending up on a life-changing road trip, where they just think they're transporting a food truck, and so to me it's like Little Havana, New Orleans, Austin—they all have different flavors, but they have very specific, unique musical cultures and food cultures that go hand in hand."
Miami, New Orleans, and Austin are tourist cities in many ways—a lot of people have experiences connected with those places that may not reflect the day-to-day life of the people who live there. And for Favreau, making a movie about authenticity meant finding ways to show people a side of New Orleans that isn't Bourbon Street, and the Austin and Miami that the locals find.
"They're all very different, even though they're not very far from each other—and those are places that most people don't really get. They don't get to see the real version of it," Favreau says. "My thing was to show the real version of the kitchen, show the real version of what's really going on in Miami, what's really going on in the Marigny and Frenchman Street in New Orleans and all those bands playing up and down that street. It's not Bourbon Street. And by the same token, in Austin, to shoot on Congress and kind of show the experience that I've had as I've gotten to know these towns better, and having the authentic view that you show your kid—not just the travelogue tourist attractions."
One thing that separates Favreau, the 2014 filmmaker, from Favreau, the guy who wrote Swingers, is that he has a well-developed sense of visual artistry. After being sought out by Hollywood to launch major franchises, you'd expect that he would—but the question of how that translates to a personal picture helps explain why he made Chef the way he did. Cooking, Favreau says, is the most visually compelling creative process to film.
"There's nothing interesting about most creative processes," he says. "Maybe you could say painting is cool in Martin Scorsese's New York Stories. Like, that's cinematic. Other than that, whenever I see somebody writing a book in a movie, or being a journalist, or programming a computer, it just isn't cinematic. It doesn't capture that feeling. But food is extremely cinematic and it photographs well."
Favreau took the potential that comes with a movie about food seriously, and investigated ways that he could manipulate audience reactions to certain images—and the effect is dazzling. "You get all those mirror neurons that make your mouth water when you see the stuff, and we really play with that," he says. "From watching us break down a pig in the first five minutes of the movie, where a lot of people recoil from it, all the way through seeing the pork dishes and the bacon prepared later when people's mouths are watering. So you can have the same product and have different effects depending on how you show it in a film. To me, as a filmmaker, it's an interesting exploration of my line of work."
Ultimately, Chef is a movie about a celebrity at the top of his field who steps back from the huge operations he'd been involved with in the past, and pursues something small-scale and personal in its stead. For Carl Casper, it's a food truck. But for Jon Favreau, it's the movie itself. When we talked after the SXSW world premiere of Chef, I asked him if this movie was his equivalent to packing in the big restaurant and selling food out of a truck.
"Yeah, I think so," Favreau says. "The thing that draws a chef to open a food truck is what drew me to doing a film like this. You have to answer to nobody, you are making everything yourself by hand, you have limited space, resources, but it's a small enough scale that you can express your voice purely, and if you succeed or fail is completely reliant on what you're putting out that window."
For a filmmaker like Favreau, whose entry into the film world was based on putting something out the window that an eager audience devoured, it was a thrilling opportunity.
"There's a certain excitement and exhilaration you get from that, especially when you're used to working on bigger movies or working as part of a bigger system in a restaurant, where you're a cog in a wheel. Even if you're a creative cog, you're still having to consider a lot of different things because you're serving commerce first and foremost," Favreau explains. "In this one, if you have a food truck, the worst thing that happens is you run out of gas. On a small movie, as long as I can be confident that I can make money back to the people who did it and I put out a movie that I really feel connected to, which I do, it's successful. It's really been a wonderful way of taking your car out on the highway and flooring it and just seeing how fast you can go. That's the feeling when you just don't check your creativity at all."