Why Chef was 20 years in the making

Jon Favreau in his new film Chef.
Jon Favreau in his new film Chef.
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It took almost 20 years, but Jon Favreau finally made his dream movie... with a little help from his friends. Film critic Tony Earnshaw reports.

Back in the days when Jon Favreau was in the running to be one of American cinema’s indie kings he had a dream about a road movie involving a chef.

That was when Swingers made Hollywood sit up and take notice. A bold, inventive, sassy, hip and very funny portrait of 1990s male bonding it scored with audiences and presented a fresh double-act in Favreau and Vince Vaughn.

Yet Vaughn drifted off into a netherworld of iffy comedies and even iffier remakes, whilst Favreau moved into directing.

Then Favreau bounced back in the most amazing fashion. He made comic-strip heroes cool again with Iron Man. And, perhaps more amazingly, he resurrected bad boy Robert Downey Jr’s flat-lining career.

But what happened to the dream project – the little film with a lot of heart that combined a love of food with the tale of a middle-aged bloke who’s lost his mojo? Suddenly, here it is.

“I haven’t made a small movie like this in a very long time,” says the 47-year-old New Yorker. “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.”

In Chef the hero is Carl Casper, a chef in a swanky LA restaurant whose ideas are compromised by the owner. Their stand-off results in some mediocre food, a stinging review by a snooty critic, a reaction caught on video and the subsequent end of Carl’s career. His response is to take his talent on the road in a food truck that sells honest Cuban fare. En-route he rediscovers his love of the culinary arts and, more importantly, re-engages with his 11-year-old son.

It’s a character piece. And with Favreau having some significant hits under his belt it meant he could make the film his way.

Having famous friends helped, too. Thus the cast is bolstered by Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Downey Jr – Iron Man himself – in a cameo.

“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.

Favreau admits he relates to his character’s decision to opt for freedom over money and prestige.

“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.”

And what about the ensemble he created for the film? Motor-mouth John Leguizamo plays the Cuban grill cook for whom food is art. Oliver Platt is the critic who zeroes in on a bad dish. Hoffman is the intransigent restaurant owner and Amy Sedaris is the publicist who comes up with a solution to Carl’s woes. It was Sedaris who responded to Favreau’s gift for comedy improv.

Then there is Robert Downey Jr, Favreau’s pal from the mighty Marvel movies, who contributes a cameo, along with Scarlett Johansson, another Marvel superheroine, who crops up as a restaurant floor manager. He gets ‘em all.

Favreau has enlisted some big guns for his little flick. Yet he sees the film as a simple and cautionary tale.

“It’s humbling to be in service to other people,” he muses. “Chef is really a story about a guy who’s reconnecting with that understanding. I think that’s kind of romantic.”