the chef behind 'chef'

The food in the film 'Chef'

the chef behind 'chef'

One of the things that made 'Chef' into an easy digestible food film, is the magnificent food. So let’s focus on that food and what really went on behind the scenes, because a lot of (other) food films do not capture the kitchen atmosphere as well as 'Chef' does.

the classic menu

Chef Carl Casper cooks pretty high end French/Italian culinary food in the beginning. He once cooked sweetbreads, but that wasn’t the ‘crowd pleaser’ the patron was looking for. And his moelleux - or chocolate lava cakes in English - , are cooked with a cylinder of frozen chocolate ganache in the middle. It’s not undercooked cake, as Chef Carl Casper indicates in the film, it’s molten, as a professional chef would do. On the classic menu are caviar egg, scallops, French onion soup, frisee salad, lobster risotto and filet mignon. That’s a great menu, but not for five years in a row, as the Chef points out to his patron.
caviar egg
The Caviar Egg

the fusion menu

The menu Carl really wants to cook is much more hybrid in its cultural origins. It has very powerful flavors: he is grilling Thai green eggplants for a spicy sauce with lots of garlic, he’s rubbing meat with Cuban mojo, full of citrus and cilantro, he serves grilled tiger prawns on a velvety pumpkin cream and combines a juicy grilled pork belly, flavored with spicy Korean gochujang. And the traditional quail, well he combines it with pickled radish, baked plantain and jalapeños. Drooling already?

In the film Carl Casper visits the cities of Austin, New Orleans and Miami, reflecting that exact urban cross over cooking culture that he’s looking for. There’s Cajun, Cuban, Mexican, French, Asian and American cuisine mixing into beautiful and original dishes. No wonder his foodtruck is such a huge success.

the food coach

When finishing the script for the film, actor-director Jon Favreau looked for a culinary coach to get the food right. He then found out that Los Angeles chef Roy Choi actually made the exact same career move as Carl Casper: from high end restaurant cook to the owner of his own food truck ‘Kogi’. Roy Choi can actually be called the godfather of the food truck movement. Favreau “I read his life story and it was exactly what I wrote! We better hire him, otherwise he might sue us, I said to my crew’. Roy Choi read the script and noted that things were wrong with it, but the story was solid. Hollywood got it wrong most of the time, he said, and chefs don't appreciate that. Choi became the food coach of the film on one condition: that the film portrayed the kitchen culture exactly right.  
Choi on the set
Roy Choi (right) on the set

roy choi

Roy Choi wrote his fascinating life story in a book called ‘L.A. Son, my life, my city, my food’. It tells the story of a young Korean immigrant in Los Angeles, his combined life in the community Koreatown and on the street, absorbing all the cultures, not knowing right from wrong. The book is a great read and next to that, every chapter of his life ends with delicious recipes from that period. Just think about how the food in your life can tell your life story: well, Chois story is pretty extreme, from Kimchi to carne asade, via instant ramen (a difficult time in his life) to spicy octopus he serves in his 2008 catering truck.
- Roy Choi

Getting it right

All the food in the film mentioned here was made by Choi, who stayed during the whole month of shooting the film. He made sure that Jon Favreau attended cooking school, he worked in Chois kitchen to experience the working of a real professional kitchen. And during the filming he corrected a lot of details. How to fold a napkin, how to wok right, where the burn scars are on a chefs arm, what joke the kitchen staff makes with a baguette and what not to do (wear your kitchen jacket to the market). You can see the hilarious interview here.
Chois culinary coaching – and Favreau willing to listen to him - is what makes the film into a great food film. And the actors knew it! For the first time in their careers they didn’t have to eat propfood, food that’s carefully made to look good on camera, but seldom tastes good (or hot). The food in Chef was all perfectly prepared and eaten by the whole crew, even if they had 20 takes of a food scene. They enjoyed it immensely, and that’s exactly what the film reflects: the joy of cooking and being surrounded by friends.
Wies Sanders, 27. April 2018
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