by Meredith Brody
Chef (2014) seems to have been designed with EatDrinkFilms and me in mind: a heartfelt movie about a Los Angeles restaurant chef whose over-the-top response to a blogger’s bad review is captured on video, and whose dissemination on social media precipitates both his firing and a midlife crisis that leads him back to his Miami roots and a joyous food truck odyssey across the USA.
It’s got a tasty cast: Favreau, playing the title role, is joined in the kitchen by John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale; Dustin Hoffman plays the owner of the L.A. restaurant (shot in LA’s Hatfield’s) that employs him; and the fashionably-tattooed Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow from the Favreau-directed Iron Man 2) works the front of the house as its hostess. The lush Sofia Vergara is suitably dishy as Favreau’s ex-wife; Robert Downey Jr., the Iron Man himself, has a comic turn as Vergara’s previous husband; and ten-year-old Emjay Anthony plays Favreau’s ten-year-old son. Oliver Platt is the restaurant critic who sets the plot in motion, and Amy Sedaris has a brisk scene as a publicist.
Exquisitely-shot food porn punctuates the proceedings. We watch hungrily as the heavily-fake-tattooed Favreau (“El Jefe”—the chief, aka chef—on his fingers, a nod to the HATE and LOVE inscribed on Robert Mitchum’s digits in The Night of the Hunter, and a chef’s knife on his forearm, among others) prepares divine-looking squab with gochuchang garnished with pickled onions and jalapeños, a whole braised pork belly with carrot puree and radishes, Korean spicy octopus, and a massive grilled ribeye, rebelling from the strait-jacket of classically French cuisine imposed upon him by Hoffman.
A tasting menu that he’s forced to prepare for Platt is heavily peppered with old-fashioned dishes and in-jokes: a soft-boiled egg topped with caviar, sautéed scallops with beurre blanc, French onion soup, frisee salad, lobster risotto, filet mignon topped with maitre d’hotel butter—the meal crowned with that cliché of dessert menus: chocolate lava cake, a version of which can now even be found on the menu at Domino’s.
The luscious-looking fusion food that Favreau prepares is inspired by Roy Choi, the famed chef who jump-started the food truck craze with his Kogi Korean barbecue tacos, and who now presides over several restaurants in Los Angeles, including the Sunny Spot, A-Frame, Chego, and the just-opened POT, as well as his fleet of trucks.
The idea of this column is to relax over a companionable meal, to encourage conversation that’s freer and more wide-ranging than that engendered in a typical brief interview.
But the reality is that Favreau is swinging through San Francisco (and Silicon Valley) in less than 24 hours. I’m lucky that his understanding handlers have moved us from the hotel room where his other interviews are being held to the Ritz Carlton’s restaurant, Parallel 37, and bumped me up to half-an-hour instead of twenty minutes.
Proof that movie stars are treated differently than you or me (pace Us Weekly): the restaurant is cool with the outside food I’ve hauled in. I scurried around, the day before, sourcing the best baked goods San Francisco had to offer, from Craftsman and Wolves (746 Valencia Street, San Francisco, 415 913-7713), Tartine Bakery & Café (600 Guerrero Street, San Francisco, 415 487-2600), and Dianda’s Italian American Pastry (2883 Mission Street, San Francisco, 415 647-5469). I even considered adding treats from across the bay, from La Farine, since it was the home of the original morning bun that I’d purchased variations on from both Craftsman and Wolves and Tartine, and also from the newish (open less than a year) Fournée Bakery, since it’s famed for a savory pastry wherein croissant dough is wrapped around either bacon or ham cradling a baked egg.
But that way lies madness. I’ve already left the house at the crack of dawn (well, for me, anyway) to be at Craftsman and Wolves for a second visit in order to purchase their signature item, The Rebel Within, a savory muffin—the batter enhanced with asiago cheese, pork sausage, green onion—that magically encases a soft-boiled egg with a still-runny yolk.
They had been out of this pricey ($7) treat when I arrived the afternoon before—we’re not talking Cronuts here, they open at 7 a.m. and, I was proudly told, “We’re usually sold out by noon or 1 p.m.!” I thought it was essential because the trick of the still-runny yolk reminded me of the still-molten center of the lava cake, another chef’s trick—a cube of frozen chocolate ganache inserted in the batter—that was the subject of Favreau’s viral meltdown. (I also bring two kinds of cherries and two kinds of apricots, from the Berkeley Bowl, because I just can’t help myself.)
The beefy, amiable Favreau, dressed casually in black pants and a open-throated untucked black shirt, tosses a well-worn black canvas messenger’s bag on the seat next to him when he sits down across from me. He’s entirely up for my tasting menu, though I’m flummoxed by his answer to my opening sally, which is “So when did you know you were a foodie?”
“I don’t know if I AM a foodie,” he replies. “I told Roy Choi, I eat like a 7-year-old boy. I’m picky—I don’t like mayonnaise, avocado, tomato…”
I gasp, “What? No BLTs!?!”
But, he continues, he learned from Roy that when you make it right, you like it. He tells me that when he first did a stage in one of Choi’s kitchens—“they had me pick parsley, for, like, an hour, it’s everybody’s beginning job”—he watched one of Roy’s female chefs making guacamole, lovingly, from scratch—“and it was the first time I ever liked guacamole.”
“So you like it now?” I ask. “Well,” he hesitates, “maybe only if I watch it being made! Or in a place I trust.”
Whereupon I tell him the kreplach joke: the one where the little boy who doesn’t like kreplach (Jewish meat-filled dumplings) watches as his mom makes it, enjoying the process through each step, until the dish is completed and he goes “Yuck! Kreplach!” He laughs.
When I compliment him on his slicing skills—the inevitable food montage features the essential shot of Favreau’s tattooed hands actually slicing zucchini with a chef’s competence and speed, after which the camera pans up to his face—he says, slyly, “But I have tricks. I directed Ironman, after all!” He then tells me to check out a video of him slicing fennel on The Chew (http://videos.mediaite.com/video/Jon-Favreau-on-The-Chew), impressing Mario Batali. On The Braiser, they said “Jon Favreau chops fennel like a boss!”
We’ve cut into The Rebel Within ($7) and are both pleased by its surprisingly runny yolk and tasty muffin, though secretly I was hoping for more presence from both the sausage and the green onion. We also taste the huge chunk of ham-and ramps quiche ($5.75), from Tartine—Favreau’s impressed that they’ve incorporated the wild onion, a harbinger of spring, but we both agree that the clay-like texture would probably be improved by heating it up. (I indeed heat the remnants when I return home, and the custard, happily, becomes deliciously custardy. And its buttery crust is impeccable. And slightly heating The Rebel Within, being careful not to cook its hidden egg, also improves its flavor.)
I also brought a large, puffy gougère ($3.50), something like an especially airy popover, from Craftsman and Wolves, and we tear into it. I love its mild but definitely present flavors of smoked cheddar and hot pepper.
Choi’s consultant fee, I think, was totally worth it if only because he changed Favreau’s steak-eating habits: he formerly liked his steaks cooked well-done—I shudder—but Favreau learned to temper (bring up to room temperature) his meat before grilling, and to let it rest for a while after it’s cooked, to let its juices and fat re-absorb. I confess I’m always a bit impatient, whereupon he cautions me to learn to wait—“and get a great ribeye!” He raves about his Big Green Egg grill, and how he flips his ribeyes over, twice, to get crosshatching.
We try both the morning buns I’ve brought: the small, dense one from Craftsman and Wolves ($4) sounded alluring, but I can barely taste its advertised grains of paradise (a floral, peppery spice), crème fraiche, and muscovado sugar. We prefer Tartine’s bigger, crunchier, almost fluffy (by comparison) version ($4.20), though Favreau was hesitant when he heard it contained orange zest—apparently another ingredient that triggers his picky instincts.
Favreau is renovating his Los Angeles kitchen, and he sounds suspiciously like a foodie when he relates some specifics: he’s opening it all up, putting in a super-hot wok ring, a flattop grill, and a pizza oven. He points out, though, that it’s nothing like a restaurant kitchen, where chefs need everything out in the open, for easy access. Among his three kids, his 7-year-old daughter Brighton loves to cook—“I bought her the same 6-inch chef’s knife that I did my son in the movie.” His 11-year-old daughter, Madeleine, is the “social media wizard” who inspired him—many have noted that “Chef” is as much about the viral online world as the restaurant one.
He also sounds authoritative when criticizing the disappointing rhubarb torte ($6) from Tartine: there’s a paucity of the tart, fruit-like vegetable, another harbinger of spring, which we thought was hiding under the crumb topping. A frantic exploration with a fork yields only specks of pale pink. “It tastes mostly like almonds,” Favreau says, accurately.
While he’s trying the cherries and the apricots—director-like, he tells me which of the varieties he prefers (the early-ripening Brooks cherries and a small blushing apricot the Bowl called “raspberry”)—I tell him that the food I lusted for the most in his movie taco-truck trip from Miami to LA were the famous Franklin’s smoked brisket, in Austin, and the beautiful Cubanos (a grilled sandwich with roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, and pickles) that Favreau sells from the El Jefe truck (along with brisket tacos, arroz con pollo, Gulf shrimp po’ boys, depending on selling location).
He agrees with me about the brisket, which Aaron Franklin, he tells me, only seasons with salt and pepper—“people think they taste cumin, garlic—it’s just the fat and the smoke, seasoned Texas hardwood.”
And he tells me with some excitement that, although he’d hoped to scatter food trucks serving Cubanos at selected theaters, that idea proved unfeasible. “But here in the Bay Area the Munchery [Ed. note: a chef-driven food-delivery website] is going to offer Cubanos for several days—they even have a chef profile for Carl Casper!”
Time is growing short. I open the box from Dianda’s, an old-fashioned Italian spot, describing its contents: the fedoretti ($4), an almond cookie heaped with chocolate mousse and glazed with chocolate; the phallic-shaped mushroom ($4), also stuffed with chocolate mousse; a bunch ($4), four rum-custard-stuffed cream puffs stacked like a miniature croquembuche; and an almond horn ($2). “You didn’t get a cannoli!” Favreau exclaims, with mock horror.
I try to think of a quick variation on the famous Godfather line “Leave the gun, take the cannoli,” but he’s already gamely trying everything but the almond horn, although not with much evident delight. He did tell me that the day before he grazed at Google and then ate at Apple before dinner at the one-Michelin-starred Alexander’s Steakhouse—“three ounces of Wagyu beef, so rich it filled me up.”
“Thank you for giving me my first ramps of the season,” Favreau says as he leaves, quite the foodie comment. “And I liked this the best,” he says, pointing at the gougère. Of course I press the half that’s left upon him. It’s the least I can do.
As I walk away, down steep Stockton Street, bearing the remnants of our breakfast feast, I experience l’esprit de l’escalier—I most especially regret not asking him if his casting of Oliver Platt as the restaurant critic was influenced at all by the fact that he’s the brother (and occasional dining companion) of New York magazine critic Adam Platt.
But I cheer up. Favreau asked me to call him next week and report on my Cubano/Munchery experience. I can always ask him then.
Meredith Brody, a graduate of both the Paris Cordon Bleu cooking school and USC film school, has been the restaurant critic for, among others, the Village Voice, LA Weekly, and SF Weekly, and has written for countless film magazines and websites including Cahiers du Cinema, Film Comment, and Indiewire. Her writings on books, theater, television, and travel have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Interview.