by Risa Nye
When I saw Jon Favreau‘s latest film Chef (2014) recently, two things occurred to me: I really wanted a grilled cheese sandwich, and I needed to talk to the two people I know who have spent most of their adult lives cooking in, or managing, restaurants and teaching others how to cook.
I wondered about their take on the movie as kitchen insiders. I’ve found that movies about writers are not always that gripping: watching someone hunched over a keyboard—scowling and cursing—isn’t that cinematic. But knife skills? Shaking a pan over a high flame? Chaos in the kitchen? Spatula manipulation—it’s action, tension, and fun to watch.
So I invited my friends, Linda Carucci and Les Sloane, over for coffee and blueberry coffee cake and conversation about the film, hoping to gain their professional perspective. We’d all seen the movie on the same night, coincidentally, so it was fresh in our minds. I wanted to hear what they had to say about kitchen politics, house management, loyalty among staff, the whole grilled cheese and cubano thing, and the versatility of cornstarch.
Q. What about the menu Favreau’s character, Chef Carl Caspar, ended up preparing for the critic? Did you laugh at every single thing?
LINDA CARUCCI: At the first mention of molten chocolate cake, I thought, oh my God—that old thing? And French onion soup? Hello? That’s the first foundation of culinary arts craft. It’s loaded with technique! I want to see respect for the ingredients. I don’t necessarily want to see them transformed, but I don’t think he was doing that. I think he was saying, look, molten chocolate cake is old-fashioned!
Q: Now, let’s talk about that grilled cheese sandwich. The way he was making it in the film, brushing on the butter….
LES SLOANE: At the end, in the outtakes, there was a scene where Roy Choi was showing Favreau how to make that sandwich, how to finesse it on the grill and how to hold your spatula the right way. He was doing different holds, and peeking … you could just smell it and feel that texture before they even cut it.
CARUCCI: When you’re doing something more than once, when you’re repeating it, you can figure out: how do I hold that spatula? If you choke up on it, if you cradle it, you really have more control. That’s the fun part—that’s what keeps it from being boring.
SLOANE: The son, being taught how to make the cubanos: you just stand there and watch it! Look for it to get golden brown, don’t turn it over until you see that.
CARUCCI: We loved that kid!
SLOANE: But why is it that [in films] the professional chef is always a man? Was there a woman in the kitchen? No. It was very male-centric.
Q. What about the progression in the kitchen after the chef leaves? Is that typical—when everyone moves up?
SLOANE: That was totally awesome! The pretty boy, the sous chef [Bobby Cannavali] became chef de cuisine. One of the first places I worked while I was in college, we had this one sous chef who was totally like that guy. He was a drunk and a party boy. I mean, the poor shmuck is sleeping in his car because he was so wasted! [Cannavali] was a party boy—but he was committed. And Martin [John Leguizamo] was such a rock when he showed up and was willing to work for no money. In the kitchens where I’ve lived, there’s always somebody who is loyal to the core.
CARUCCI: Yeah, the kind of person you want to take with you wherever you go.
SLOANE: And Dustin Hoffman, he’s the bad guy—but it’s true: at the end of the day, it’s his restaurant.
Q. So whose side were you on when Hoffman gave Favreau the ultimatum?
SLOANE and CARUCCI: (Laughter)
Q. What about the portrayal of the restaurant functioning in crisis mode?
CARUCCI: They did that really well. They captured that scene. There’s this attitude: you don’t call in sick—you call in dead! And people work when they’re sick—or hungover! But when you get that rhythm going, there’s something so satisfying about it. And at the end of the shift, it’s just so … Wow! We did it! And then you count the tickets. How many covers did we do today? 81?! I remember after a night like that, standing in the shower saying, “I have never deserved this shower more.” But that kind of thing—it’s for young bodies. It’s really grueling.
Q. And what about getting hurt? We hear in the movie that the kid cut himself.
SLOANE: We all have our scars and souvenirs. The first time I used a mandoline … (shows nasty scar). But things happen in a restaurant. You just deal with it. You know someone’s going to cut themselves, somebody’s going to trip and spill grease. All kinds of things are going to happen and you just deal with it.
CARUCCI: I burned a piece of fish once. The chef said to me, “OK, so you have one minute to get over that.” And I said, “Oh, thank you!” If someone loses their momentum, it pollutes the whole atmosphere.
SLOANE: It used to be, you burned your piece of fish? Go take a smoke break. I can’t tell you how many times a chef said to me, “Go take a smoke break!”
CARUCCI: Or go in the walk-in and scream!! Aaaaaah!
Q: In that scene where Scarlett Johansson comes in and says, “We’re in the weeds!” did you tense up, or did you think, oh, I’m just watching this? Any flashbacks?
SLOANE: Oh, totally. You get used to it, though. You either get used to it or you get out. And that’s with every chef you work for. If they’re going to scream at you ….
CARUCCI: One of the things we’re not even talking about is the whole issue of sanitation.
SLOANE: Yes, making the food and taking the money.
CARUCCI: But I didn’t see any “violations” in the movie, did you? I thought they did a pretty clean job.
SLOANE: Yes, I think so too. I remember seeing Martin clean his station, when they first go in the truck. They actually showed him cleaning his board, cleaning the trap … and that scene reminded me of the cornstarch! Men do that in the kitchen, on the east coast in particular.
Q. They throw it down there?
SLOANE: “Dude, I need the cornstarch!” “Feel better?” “Yeah!”
Q. OK, that was a new one on me.
SLOANE: The thing about the food that didn’t work for me—in the beginning in the restaurant, the chef was doing sauces and everything—over the top—and then he gets to have his own place, his own shop, and all he’s making is a sandwich. I love sandwiches, so it’s not just … all it is, is a sandwich. You get the thrill of pushing out the food and the instant gratification of handing it out to someone who’s going to eat it, so … you get that, which you don’t get in a restaurant.
CARUCCI: The fact that he was only making a sandwich really underscores how valuable it was to him that he had his own business. That he didn’t have to answer to anybody. It’ll be the best sandwich—and it’ll be his! It’s his truck! He doesn’t have Dustin Hoffman breathing down his neck. And let the critics be damned!
SLOANE: The camaraderie among the troops was so believable—that “Let’s have a three-way right now! We rocked the house tonight!” Those relationships were so true.
CARUCCI: What about the reviewer?
Q. When the chef had that scene with the reviewer he showed his vulnerability. He said, “Your words hurt people!” Did you buy it?
CARUCCI: Chefs have a lot of bravado, but they are very sensitive.
SLOANE: So true.
CARUCCI and SLOANE: (laughter)
Risa Nye lives in Oakland. Her articles and essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Monthly, Hippocampus magazine, and several anthologies. She writes about cocktails as Ms. Barstool for Nosh at berkeleyside.com and about other things at risanye.com.
Author of the critically acclaimed Cooking School Secrets for Real World Cooks , Linda Carucci is former dean of the California Culinary Academy and was inaugural chef / director at The International Culinary School at The Art Institute of California – San Francisco. Linda has also managed and cooked in several San Francisco Bay Area restaurants and served as the private chef for a prominent San Francisco family. She teaches cooking classes across the Bay Area, gives private cooking lessons, and organizes team-building cooking classes for groups. For details or a class schedule: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Les Sloane is a third generation cook who credits her grandmother with introducing her to the wonders of the kitchen. With no formal training, but with a well-trained palate, Les got her start as a dishwasher at the Vulcan Café in Oakland. In her 25 years in the kitchen she has been privileged to learn the craft of baking from an Austrian baker, worked for Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger at Border Grill, helped to open a restaurant in Seattle, and taught at the California School of Culinary Arts in Los Angeles. Currently Les is a chocolate promoter and caterer.