Chef whets creative juices

In his new indie comedy-drama Chef, Jon Favreau plays a celebrated cook who happily spends all night in the kitchen testing new recipes for everything from whole roast pig to slow-cooked brisket to fresh berries with toffee dusting.

And for breakfast, it's a heart-clogging, drool-inducing three-cheese toastie.

"This is food porn, pure and simple," one critic said.

But for Favreau, who wrote the script in three weeks and produced and directed the winning low-budget film, Chef is not just about cooking up a feel-good, deep-fried, comfort food film that can sit beside foodie movies such as Chocolat, Big Night, Mostly Martha and Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory.

The 47-year-old, who basically launched Marvel Studios as the director of Iron Man and its sequel, admits it's far more personal than that.

"I haven't made a small movie like this in a very long time," says the relaxed, softly spoken power-player who broke through as the writer and star of the cult indie hits Swingers and Made.

"So when I see shows like Girls or Louis CK or Curb Your Enthusiasm, all these guys are writers and directors and actors and they're having so much fun. I really missed that experience, so I gave myself permission to do this."

Clearly feeling creatively cloistered after a string of big, successful studio films (including Cowboys & Aliens, Elf and Zathura), Favreau penned a thinly veiled script about a creatively cloistered chef who must stick to the same boring menu night after night. After a scathing review by a renowned food critic, the chef finds himself unemployed and at a crossroads in his career.

He backs himself to go it alone in a food truck and lets his sumptuous cooking speak for itself, getting his mojo back along the way.

While Favreau admits he's "had a good run with the critics", the parallels are so obvious Chef can almost be seen as a semi-autobiographical film, with Favreau turning his back "on some big exciting projects" to go it alone, return to his indie roots and get his filmmaking mojo back.

"It was important for me to do, because you have to go where your passion takes you," the tall, stocky talent explains. "I wanted to try something that would keep me sharp and grounded. I wanted to write a screenplay from scratch, let the characters speak in the voices I gave them, cast the people who I wanted to work with and then see where that led me."

After writing Chef in three weeks non-stop, just as he did Swingers, Favreau cast Dustin Hoffman as the restaurant owner, Oliver Platt as the snarky food critic, Scarlett Johansson as his maitre d' girlfriend and Modern Family's Sofia Vergara as his ex-wife. He also reserved a kooky cameo for his Iron Man mate, Robert Downey Jr.

To portray the chef, Favreau teamed up with LA food-truck king Roy Choi, who became the first-food truck operator to be named one of the top 10 best new chefs of 2010 by Food and Wine magazine.

"Chef Roy took me under his wing and gave me a crash course for this. He sent me to the culinary academy in LA to train with a traditional French chef, just as my character would have, and it was very intense. I learnt all my mother sauces and my knife cuts and making demi-glace. Then I started working in his kitchens, working prep and working the line until I was comfortable being a cook, then conducting myself as a chef. I did a few events with him and worked a shift in one of his food trucks, which was huge fun."

Despite suffering a few burns in the heat of the kitchen, the cooking bug clearly bit the big food lover.

"I would go home and practise all my knife cuts. I'm even putting a commercial kitchen into my house now."

The experience showed the filmmaker the many parallels between chefs and creative Hollywood types such as himself, and gave him perspective. "I found a lot of similarities between the movie world and the culinary world," the father of three said.

"With Chef, we're watching a character who wants to have an original creative voice but is cloistered by his boss. It's the same in the movie world. It's filled with creative people who must work within budgets and deadlines. In both cases, you're dealing with the creative process and if you don't create boundaries it will eat up all of your time, all of your passion and all of your energy.

"As you get older, you have to balance out the things that are more important. So Chef is a way to examine that balance between creativity with collaboration and family and career. It's about finding your voice and staying true to it in the face of failure or success. And personally speaking, the lessons my character learns over the course of the movie I've learnt gradually over time. I've chosen to invest a lot in my children and not let my career take my life over and find a place where I can experience my kids growing up."

The whole experience gave Favreau his filmmaking mojo back, just as he hoped it would. "It's been the best experience I can remember making a movie. It was really fun to do one on my own and, I have to tell you, it really satisfied a certain urge in me and made me feel reconnected to the whole movie process.

The likable, multi-talented filmmaker will need his creative juices flowing for his next project, a big-budget movie, directing a blockbuster adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book.

"It's really revitalised me, creatively, and paid dividends in my life," he said.

'So Chef is

a way to examine that balance between creativity with collaboration and family and career. It's about finding your voice and staying true to it in the face of failure or success.'