With a title as direct as Chef — the indie dramedy written and directed by Jon Favreau (Iron Man) that is expanding nationwide this weekend — it is perhaps no surprise that the food in Favreau's film looks good enough to eat. And that's because it was.
"We were eating the food," Favreau told BuzzFeed. "There was nothing that we shot that wasn't amazing."
The food in Chef wasn't just delicious, though. (Warning: Some plot — and food — spoilers follow.) It was also crucial to telling the film's central story about lauded chef Carl Casper (Favreau), whose many years at a middlebrow Los Angeles restaurant have dulled his culinary senses so much that it takes a scathing review by a famed food critic (Oliver Platt) — and a subsequent social media meltdown — to jolt Carl back into making great food again. That journey comes to a head with a sequence in which the food critic is served Carl's old menu a second time while Carl, who has been fired, cooks up a far more adventurous — and mouthwatering — menu at his home.
With so many different dishes appearing on screen at the same time, Favreau turned to one of L.A.'s most celebrated cutting-edge chefs, Roy Choi, to construct it all. Choi, 44, became a star of the foodie world when he launched the food truck phenomenon with Kogi, which fused together Korean BBQ and Mexican cuisine so effectively that it has launched countless imitators. In addition to Kogi, Choi now oversees a string of Los Angeles restaurants. When it came time to find a culinary adviser for Chef — which ultimately leads to Carl starting his own food truck serving authentic Cubano sandwiches — Favreau understood that Choi's sensibility was so spot on for his story that he gave Choi an unusual degree of creative control over his movie. "His whole thing was, as long as you do it right, and as long as we get it authentic, he would put the work in and do whatever I needed and teach me whatever he could," said Favreau. "Everything — whether it was the script, what I was wearing, what I was cooking, what the kitchen looked like — everything was cleared through him."
Choi took that wide latitude very seriously. "The way we designed the food, I really tried to get into Carl as a character, as a person, and what he was going through," he told BuzzFeed. "I really tried to tell a story with the food."
That proved to be a challenge when Choi was tasked with creating a menu that a food critic would not like.
"That was tough, man," said Choi. "It was really, really tough. It wasn't tough to create, but it was tough forcing yourself back there. Imagine some of the stuff you first wrote when you first started [in journalism], and having without judgment to go back to that place and use those same metaphors and same similes and ways of structuring your words, the over-the-top stuff before you kind of evolved. Going back there was weird."
Choi crafted a menu filled with what have become culinary clichés, including a poached egg topped with caviar, a bowl of French onion soup, scallops with beurre blanc, frisée salad, and filet mignon topped with a massive slab of butter.
"I just tried to think of six or seven things that would be like daggers to us [chefs]," said Choi. "It was like wearing old clothes from stuff you looked at in the '80s. Like, Ohhhh, man." The idea, he explained, is that Carl's restaurant — and his cooking — had over the years become an institution without any invention. "Maybe similar to like [popular L.A. establishment] The Ivy, where it's packed, you're still going there [to] see and be seen. It's not like you can put a roast squab with braised tripe and test it on the menu with pickled fermented chili. No one's going to order it, and everyone's there for the cobb salad and the scallops or whatever."
That was most typified by the final menu item that Favreau had written into the script early on as the nadir of Carl's creative stagnation: a chocolate lava cake.
"Jon had it there as a placeholder [in the script]," said Choi, "and then I think as we got to know each other he started to understand the impact of why that is kind of symbolized as the worst part of our era. It was overplayed. It was something that was a wonderful, wonderful thing that was created by Michel Bras, but then it got copied and mutilated and taken across the world into every chain restaurant, every chasm of American psyche. And it was done wrong a lot of the time."
It wasn't that this food was unappetizing — Favreau made a point of noting that every dish overseen by Choi "is actually all good food" — just that it was boring, and deserving of a terrible review that could push Carl to begin to exercise his cooking imagination again.
In the film, that creative reinvigoration starts with Carl whipping up a few new possibilities for the restaurant's menu, including Santa Barbara spot prawns in a curry-carrot purée and garnished with radishes, and a roast squab with pickled red onion, chilies, gochujang, and soy vinaigrette.
"At that stage, he still hasn't completely reached the mountaintop yet and spread his wings," said Choi. "He's just starting to explore, really tying to find his voice again. I feel like that [squab] dish was one that really stood out that you could see Carl was really trying again — seasoning and roasting the squab whole, and serving it with Korean chili paste and puréeing garlic and green onion and ginger [in] all of these fermented flavors, with an infused soy reduction, and pickled red onions, and chiles. Really starting to push himself again, to say, I don't need a starch on this plate. I don't need the flavors to be subdued. I can really cook the way that I love to eat."
Of course, as Choi said, "That's a huge leap for a traditional restaurant in [L.A.], putting these flavors on the menu" — and when Carl tries to put them on the menu, he's fired. Which is what finally launches him into cooking at his own home with abandon. "He's fucking pissed," Choi said. "He's lost his job. And it's like a guy punching a wall and making hole after hole in a wall, like a boxer just pissed off and just cooking. In his apartment, I wanted him to cook in a way where he was cooking food that you couldn't deny."
First up, "a whole roast pork belly slathered with garlic chili paste, cured and braised and cut and served over an heirloom carrot purée that's as silky as can be, with a little salsa verde and pickled radishes."
Next, "Korean spicy octopus, like a stir-fry with bell peppers, onions, green onions, sauce filled with sesame oil, ginger, garlic, puréed onion, orange juice, chili paste, kimchi, all that stuff."
Then, a "28-day dry-aged ribeye from Harvey Guss in Los Angeles. It's fully coated with salt and pepper an hour-and-a-half before. Searing it. Letting it rest. Serving it with charred cauliflower, roasted potatoes, lemon, garlic, and really good oil."
The dessert dish was a trickier challenge, because it needed to contrast with how symbolic the chocolate lava cake had become to Carl's career. "Jon really wanted something that you could see and be like, Oh my god, I want that right now," said Choi.
"I thought, he's not going to be baking anything," Choi continued. "He's not going to be making his own ice cream in his house and things like that. So I was thinking what possible dessert can we do: Let's just macerate some berries, some really good mint, some lemon verbena inside of there, make a really great whipped cream. And then Jon said, 'I want something to show that Carl has this really fine-tuned level of OCD where it's like even the smallest thing takes steps.' So then we started thinking of a brittle, and then it evolved into this powder. We're cooling it, breaking it, pounding it, running it through a sieve, and then letting it fall like dust, all for just one little piece of that dessert. I think that was the story right there."
Indeed, Choi's investment was not just in making the food look good but making sure it connected to both the film's central narrative and reflected where cooking is today. "How he's cooking in the apartment is a whole departure, not only mood-wise, but getting away from dishes having to be completely composed for each diner," said Choi. "We're just cooking. Sometimes things are shared. Sometimes you'd have your own plate, but it's a lot more rustic. It's a lot more focused on the actual flavor versus the construction to wow you and show you how special we are. It's more about making sure it's delicious, and I felt like that food in that apartment was all about that, making it as delicious as possible."