Jon Favreau at the Writer's Guild on Sunday. Photo by Jay
This movie is absolutely delicious, a love letter to the people who prepare our food! I have been a food-and-film critic for 50+ years, the last 30 of them for my widely-read monthly restaurant newsletter. And for the past four years I have been a regular contributor to this Huffington Post blog, with its huge worldwide audience. I have seen hundreds of movies where food was either a small or significant element in the film. Remember the wonderful Ratatouille? Babbett's Feast; Eat, Drink, Man, Women; Chocolat, Mostly Martha; The Big Night ? There's an axiom that one shouldn't shop while you are hungry, but I add the admonition that you should not see this movie when you are hungry... unless you see it at the new Westwood iPic theater, where you can eat and drink to abandon while viewing. As I watched this lushly rich food-porn film, I salivated at the making of a great grilled cheese sandwich (repeated in the closing credits) and watched wide-eyed at the slicing by hand of a juicy, smoky beef brisket off the bone. Hearing the sizzle of a slab of pork belly being fried in a cast-iron pan was electrifying. Yes, there is a story tied to all this, a charming father-and-son tale of a passionate, obstinate Miami-born fine chef, Carl Casper, played by the brilliant 47-year-old Jon Favreau, who is a sadly-missed father to his tousled 11-year-old son, Percy, played by Emjay Anthony, with his ex, the always-luscious Sofia Vegara. Someone wrote recently that the best food movies show the power of succulent cookery to stir passions and unite people. So true here.
The Chef and his son in the food truck. All film stills from Open Road .
Jon Favreau, whom I met with after the screening at the Writer's Guild, wrote, co-produced, directed and acted in this charming, vibrant tale. He told me that he had tried for many years to fit a chef into one of his films, and when he had a month open and had finished this screenplay, he just went ahead, got financing and shot the picture while enlisting the help (at greatly reduced rates) of many of his friends. Dustin Hoffman plays Riva, the stubborn owner of the 10-year-old Westwood French restaurant where the chef is working at the start of the picture. He conflicts with chef Carl when the latter wants to update more adventurously a to-him boring menu of old favorites (French onion soup, lobster risotto, filet, frisee salad and chocolate lava cake) for the food blogger critic, Oliver Platt, coming for dinner that evening. Dustin wins, the subsequent on-line blog review is brutal in its assessment of the old-line food by the chef. A Twitter battle ensues when his tech-savvy son introduces him to the social media network and he sends out an incendiary message regarding his conflict with the critic. It inadvertently reaches the world... revelatory and fascinating to us Luddites. (In real life, Jon has 1.7 million Twitter followers!) Chef Carl is fired and his two sous chefs, John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale, have to take over the kitchen. Scarlett Johansson, almost unrecognizable in a dark wig, plays Molly, a sympathetic dining room manager who comforts the chef. She inexplicably soon disappears from the film, so their romance is unfulfilled. There is a rather strange scene where the frustrated chef prepares a succulent pasta dish for her, with garlic and olive oil, while she lounges sexily on a couch... I expected more than the food to happen, but that was it. Amy Sedaris has one scene as Jen, a fast-talking publicist.
Chef with his son and ex-wife, played wondefully by Sofia Vergara.
The slight plot kicks in when the out-of-work chef goes to Florida with his ex and son, and another Sofia ex-husband, Robert Downey Jr., (who was in Iron Man with him) offers Favreau an old food truck as a stop-gap measure. The father-and-son then bond as they prepare the "El Jefe" truck to serve luscious Cubano sandwiches. (They are made with bread, pickles, pork, Swiss cheese, and griddled 'til meltingly hot.) Soon the sous chef John joins the duo as they drive cross-country from Miami's Versailles Restaurant to New Orleans (where beignets from Café du Monde are added to the menu) to Austin, Texas (where barbeque beef brisket sliders from Franklin come in), serving food to enthusiastic customers on their trip back to Los Angeles. I admit that I didn't know much about Favreau prior to the screening, although we bonded when we met over our mutual backgrounds in Brooklyn, Long Island and Manhattan. He had gone to Queens College but didn't get a degree. I liked him in Swingers in 1996, which he wrote for himself and Vince Vaughn, but did not see him in the various epic Iron Man films. He told me that he had wanted this movie to be done very independently, with no studio control, and it was shot for a relatively low budget in 30 days and is being distributed by Open Road Films. I asked him about his cooking skills, and he told me that he had been an indifferent cook until he took an intensive six-week cooking course wih legendary Chef Roy Choi, working in some of his restaurants. I have reviewed Choi's famed Kogi taco truck and will soon be reviewing his new POT restaurant in Koreatown. Jon told me that he now has some decent knife skills (demonstrated in the film), several typical chef burns on his arms, and could work the line in a good restaurant.
Working the truck.
Posting the menu.
He told the audience last night that if he didn't have total control, the powers-that-be would have cut five minutes out of the food sequences, would have omitted lots of the f-bombs to make it a PG-13. "Kitchens aren't PG places," he joked. There are so many fine moments of drama emulating real life, i.e. a scene where Carl buys his son, Percy, his first chef's knife, and tells him how precious it will be to him. Loved a throw-away funny moment when a bumbling sheriff recognizes him from the Twitter and asks to have a 'selfie.'
Scarlett Johansson in a dark wig has a few scenes as Mollie, the hostess.
I don't' think I have suitably conveyed the fact that this movie is sheer, unending fun. It has a vibrant, exciting musical score consisting of Latin rhythms and Southern soul, with a few magical musical numbers throughout. One song in New Orleans had me grinning and tapping my foot with the audience.
Jon with famed Chef Roy Choi, who trained him in his cooking skills.
This is a personal project in every way from Favreau, and it is passionately communicated to the receptive audience... plated to please, a home-cooked meal from a fine cinematic chef rather than a routine Big Mac. It opens here on May 9th.