chefJon Favreau has returned to his independent roots.

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After half a decade of making studio pictures (Iron Man; Cowboys & Aliens), he has traded the hundreds of millions of dollars for the freedom and passion a smaller production allows. What he gives us is Chef, a heartfelt comedy celebrating the rich culture of food in the United States and the rapturous freedom of the creative process. The film, written and directed by Favreau, tells the story of Carl Casper, a chef at a trendy Los Angeles restaurant, who, after butting heads with his boss and an influential food critic, quits his job to start a food truck with his friend and trusted grill chef Martin (John Leguizamo) and his young son Percy (Emjay Anthony). Together, they travel from Miami across the Southern United States, back home to L.A.

We were able to take part in roundtable interviews with Jon Favreau and the young actor who plays his son Emjay Anthony. Here are the highlights:


Q: How was it keeping up with John Leguizamo?

JF: Oh, he’s the best. Yeah. I’ve known his work for so long, and I’ve known him. It was actually on Dinner for Five I met him many years ago. I used to do that TV show. But, you know, I’m an improviser, he is. What I like about him is he’s not just a comedian improviser, he’s an actor. So it’s never at the expense of the scene. That’s when you get into trouble with improv, is people … get selfish with it. But acting is a very selfless thing. You have to be supportive of the story and the emotional baggage that the scene has to carry. So he was always great. And plus he’s a really hard worker, for as long as he’s been at it. He was really inspiring. Like, he’s an actor’s actor. Most actors, at a certain point, they want to do something else. They’ve had their fun acting and then they want to produce or they want to direct, and then they lose the passion. And I think he’d want to do other things besides it. He writes and does other things, but still, primarily, he’s an actor, and he loves it. He always acts like he’s very lucky to be on the set everyday to get to work. And a lot of people lost that after however long they’ve been doing it, twenty, twenty-five years.

Q: Did you train at a restaurant for your role in the film?

JF: Oh, yeah. I came out here and worked with [Leguizamo] at the restaurant he was working at. But I was back with Roy. And Roy Choi, the chef who is one of our producers on this film, the guy who came up with the menu, and the guy who honestly said he would help, but I have to get the chef culture right, and most movies don’t. Most chefs are disappointed with how their world is depicted on the big screen. And so every step of the way, whether it was the script or my training or the way the food was presented in the movie, he oversaw. And first he sent me off to a very condensed version of traditional French culinary training, just so I could be exposed to what my character would’ve been exposed to. And then doing prep work in his kitchens, then working on the line in his kitchens. So for like three months I worked with him very closely. And I already knew the basics of cooking, and I love reading books about cooking and watching shows about cooking, so I kind of had a really good context of it all, and I’d done a lot of research in writing it. Like every book I could get my hands on. But that’s totally different from actually being there in the kitchen. And the bug bit me, and I’m still doing it. It’s my hobby. Ripping apart my kitchen at home and putting in commercial equipment, and the family loves doing it with me. So it’s a nice thing. It’s a hobby that ages gracefully, more than DJ-ing.

Q: One of the big themes of the movie is the creative process as it manifests through food. Where did the inspiration to use the food culture come from, and did that or the theme or the creative process come first?

JF: I think the food came first, because I’ve been fixated. You have to really find something you would be happy to obsess over to make a movie, ’cause you have to live it. Even this one was pretty short. We shot it in a month, the whole thing will have taken a little over a year. Which compared to one of the big movies I do that could take two, two-and-a-half years. So, but still, you have to, as a director, you have to be able to pick something that excites you enough that you can breathe it, you know, every day all day, and make a million different decisions about it, and love it. And food was something I just really thought was very cinematic. I love Big Night. I love Eat, Drink, Man, Woman. Jiro Dreams of Sushi. And there were so few films like that, I wanted to do something about that world, especially with this rockstar chef culture, I thought what a great character. But then on the same token, I know the creative process. I know the balance of art of commerce. And people in the movie business tend to be a little bit more realistic about it. People from chef culture, they never thought they were going to be public figures when they started working as chefs. And so you’ll get people who are a lot more flawed and a lot more dramatically interesting. You can’t really make a movie about making movies. It’s boring. Unless you’re really smug about the whole thing, like The Player. It’s hard to be entertaining. And this, you could make a much more sincere film about food culture. So it allowed me to take some of my experience from feeling like wanting to make something that’s my vision, but also having to satisfy an audience, people investing money, reviewers, online blogging, commenting on your stuff, being sensitive but also being bold. And I was able to use exaggerated aspects of that to help color in this film.

Q: You have some nice lady friends in this movie. You cast some nice ladies around yourself. What was it like working with Scarlett Johansson and Sofia Vergara?

JF: There was more to that question than that. Did it take you out of it? Was it like, “Wow. He gave himself some hot girls to be around.” It shows you how good of a chef he might have been. That’s what I’m figuring. The food must be really good.

Q: They both seem perfectly cast for the roles that they played.

JF: Yeah. They were. I’ve hung out with chefs. If you’re at the top of your game there’s something that’s really captivating about that. And what I like about chefs too is they’re very confident. And they don’t apologize for their individuality. As a matter of fact, they play it up with their tattoos, their hair, you know, their personas. They are like rockstars. And also, even as a guy, having a guy cook for you, it’s incredibly intimate and incredibly flattering and emotional. And talking to them, it’s like a musician. It’s like a musician playing a song for somebody, and I wanted to capture that. But beyond that, Sofia was somebody who I didn’t know personally, but as I wrote the role it was very clear that I don’t know who else it could have been. She was definitely my first choice. And I met with her — she was the first person I met with — and she was down for it. We had to work around her schedule with the show. And Scarlett I knew from “Black Widow” and she’s just really super-smart and cool and got it, and both she and Downey came on it was a big favor on both their parts. This was not a high-paying gig by any stretch. As a matter of fact, it paid as little as the guilds would allow to get it made. And then everybody else, you know, this is a dream cast. These are all first choices. You know, Bobby Cannavale I didn’t think I could get. Chased him down. I’ve been wanting to work with him for a long time, seemed perfect. He’s great. And Leguizamo. And both of them being New Yorkers, and me being a New Yorker, it really added to the rhythm of the dialogue in the kitchen, which was such an important part for me to get that right. To have it humorous but also a little rough around the edges, and also inappropriate for kids. Which will give this film a soft R, which, as a dad makes me sad, because my kids love the movie so much, but if you want to say the f-word more than once in a movie it’s an R. And you can’t make a movie about a kitchen where you have all nice language. But I wanted to get it right. And I didn’t want to change anything. Fortunately the movie was small enough I didn’t have to. Really, everything you see in the movie is exactly how I wanted. And after working on big movies where you have to collaborate a lot and you have to make concessions for commercial reasons or studio politics, it was nice to do a little one where I only had to please myself, really.

Q: The film took on the structure of the classic road trip. When did you decide that would be the structure and where did that inspiration come from?

JF: That’s an interesting question, because I started writing it, and I thought, “Oh here I am, writing a movie where I could stay home and really celebrate Venice and the culinary culture in California and Los Angeles.” And then, lo and behold, like everything else I’ve written without a structure, I ended up on the road. In Swingers we went to Vegas. In Made we went to New York. And here, we just set out to do a road trip. I think I always loved Easy Rider. You know? I remember I bought a Harley after I quit working on Wall Street back in the 80s. And I bought a Harley and the fantasy of going cross-country, which I did. And there was always something— I think the romanticism wasn’t about the biker culture as much as about the movie itself. And I always loved the stories about how they took the bikes, and they just took the cameras, and they just went on the road and through the South and filmed that film. And that was a real, you know, that was really one of the founding fathers of independent film right there. And so the idea of just taking the truck on the road with the cameras and going form town to town and really filming in the real environments. .. When you don’t have a lot of money but you have that freedom you can get a lot of production value from our country. And just getting the authentic backdrop and music was great. And so we kind of traced their steps a little bit.

Emjay Anthony plays Jon’s son in the film.

Q: Were you nervous going through the auditions and the casting process?

EA: It was just like every other audition at first. And then when you get a callback, you try even harder. And then when you get the part, you’re so excited.

Q: Were you excited to learn a little bit about cooking?

EA: Yes, I was.

Q: What was one of the most fun things you did on set that maybe wasn’t in the movie?

EA: Okay, either propose to Sofia Vergara or slept with Sofia Vergara. Technically, I slept with her, guys. Took a nap with her on a couch for over an hour.

Q: Sofia your number one?

EA: Yes. Or, number one or number three. I can’t call her number two.

Q: Who’s number two?

EA: No. Number two.

Q: Oh. Gotcha. How’d you feel about Scarlett?

EA: I like her better as a redhead.

Q: What did you learn from working with Jon Favreau?

EA: I learned how to cry on set, on cue, and I learned just, like, to be loud.

Q: How do you cry on cue?

EA: You just think of something very sad. Brings you down.

Q: Were there any actors that you were really excited to meet or nervous to meet?

EA: I want think Robert Downey, Jr., but I didn’t get to meet him. And Scarlett Johansen.

Q: Who was your favorite person that you did get to work with?

EA: Sofia Vergara.

Q: What kind of work did you do to prepare for the role? How far in advance did you find out that you got the part?

EA: About a month. […] We actually did a table read. It was me, Jon, and John, and we actually cooked a few cubanos.

Q: How was working with the food on set?

EA: Very tempting to eat. Very tempting. So you cook it, then you eat it; you cook it, then you eat it. […] Like, uh, Jon Favreau made these amazing grilled cheese. It was the best I ever had, the first bite. Pretty good the second bite. Okay the third bite. But by the 60th bite, I just wanted to puke. It was awful by the 60 bite.

Q: Do you feel like you’ve grown as an actor having worked on this movie?

EA: Yes. I feel like I did. […] I feel like every movie is like a learning experience, and I think you become a better actor.

Q: Jon Favreau wore a lot of hats for this movie: wrote it, directed it, starred in it. Is that something you’d ever want to do, or you think only acting?

EA: Only acting. ‘Cause you have to do so much work to direct it. Like a lot of work. And I don’t mean to sound lazy, but you gotta do it for, like, six months straight. It’s just a lot.

Q: What made you want to go into acting?

EA: Well, we did, actually, an open-call audition for It’s Complicated and I got it and it was really fun.

“Chef” hits theaters on May 9, 2014.

-Stephen Jones

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