Photo © Robert Fisher
Roy Choi is an F&W Best New Chef; Jon Favreau plays one in the new movie Chef. Here, they team up to make sensational Cuban food.
Jon Favreau stands over a slab of pork butt like he owns it. Roy Choi, the founder of the Kogi food-truck empire, is at his side. They are in the kitchen at Los Angeles's Sunny Spot, one of Choi's four restaurants, and it's time to apply the garlicky marinade to the meat. First, Favreau reaches for a paring knife, one that he's brought from home. "Make the scores," Choi orders. "How deep, chef?" Favreau asks, serious and eager, sturdy on the line in his clogs. "Quarter-inch," says Choi, adjusting his baseball cap. "How far apart?" "About an inch."
Favreau tenderizes the pork with his hands. "Massage it even stronger, Jon," says Choi. "Like you'd massage octopus?" Favreau asks. "Exactly," says Choi. "Just like an octopus."
All this effort is in service of a sandwich, specifically the mouthwatering cubano that has a key role in Favreau's latest film, Chef. Favreau plays Carl Casper, an F&W Best New Chef who, employed by a restaurateur portrayed by Dustin Hoffman, loses his mojo and, eventually, his job. Cooking in a food truck brings him redemption. Favreau wrote Chef less from a fascination with food or the restaurant business, and more as a way to tell a universal tale. "It's about losing the part of yourself that launched you," he says. When Favreau sought a culinary adviser for the film, an associate told him about Choi, whose own decision to go mobile lifted him from career anonymity to Best New Chef honors. (That Choi owns the Cuban-inflected Sunny Spot also paid dividends.) Choi had one condition. "I'd only do the movie if it looked absolutely real," he says, "from the way Carl folds his towels at the start of service to the way he cleans his station when he's done."
After recommending Favreau take private cooking lessons at a local culinary school for a couple of weeks, Choi put him to work. "He'd just throw me in one of his kitchens," says Favreau, "and wherever I'd go, they'd look at me. I'm old, I'm big, I'm not a cook. They'd say, 'You're here to help?' And then they'd have me pick parsley." Herb-plucking soon gave way to greater responsibility. "The parsley is a test," says Favreau, "to see if you're focused and not inclined toward giving up or screwing up. So I filled bowls and bowls with it. And then Roy put me on the line."
That's where Favreau learned Choi's dishes, from that griddled cubano to crisp-tender fried yucca wedges with banana ketchup. "You get hit hard," says Favreau. "Once you're in the weeds, they don't care if you're a beginner. They need a pair of hands."
Having spent time braising and frying under pressure, Favreau now sees similarities between cooking and filmmaking. "The common thread," he says, "is this OCD enjoyment of doing something well repeatedly and getting lost in it. Every great chef and every great moviemaker has that tendency."
Choi quickly realized that Favreau's efforts in the kitchen transcended what everyone thought would be a Method acting exercise. And Favreau was no longer merely cooking for the sake of a movie role. Instead, he found himself working hard at the tasks at hand, impassioned by both the process and its results. "I've learned boxing for a film," says Favreau. "I've learned football. I could learn to be a fireman one day, but this one's different. It doesn't stop with the movie. I'm still wanting to learn more, to cook more." At home, Favreau upgraded his kitchen. His kids got in on it, too. "My seven-year-old has pretty good knife skills and wants to go to culinary school," he says. "My oldest loves working the flat top. He'll do sliders or pancakes for me."
As Favreau learned how to cook, he also learned how to eat. Despite his professional accomplishments—after his breakthrough film, Swingers, he went on to direct Elf and produce all three Iron Man movies—he admits to a history of irrational pickiness befitting a nine-year-old. "I wouldn't eat a sandwich with mayonnaise on it if I was starving," he says. Avocados, too, remained out of the question. "But everything takes on a different meaning once you see the work that goes into a dish," he says. For Favreau, this soul-expanding moment came in a tiny prep area of the Sunny Spot kitchen. "There was a woman sitting next to me peeling fresh avocados," he says, "building a guacamole from scratch. I watched every tender step: putting the citrus in; seasoning, mashing, making it the right texture. Then she turns to me. I don't speak any Spanish, but we got to know one another, and she goes to hand me what she's made. It's not even something I think about. It's just like, 'Thank you! My gosh! What you've put into this!' I never eat guacamole, and it was one of the best things I ever ate in my life."
Pulling the caramelized pork butt from the oven and preparing to slice it for Cuban sandwiches, Favreau examines its lacquered topography. "Should I use a French fork?" he asks Choi. "Perfect," Choi responds. Later Choi explains: "The pork and the bread, which we make ourselves, are the artisanal parts of the sandwich. Everything else—the ham, the mustard, the pickles—should be supermarket-grade."
Favreau draws his knife, the same one he uses in the movie, and carves it through the meat like an expert. "Press down, pull back," Choi instructs. The two then get talking about one of the film's locations, in Austin, where they met barbecue master Aaron Franklin. "I want to start doing the brisket at home like Aaron does in Austin," says Favreau, citing a low-and-slow technique he's come to admire and love. "If you get to that point," says Choi, "your life will change forever. You won't be in the movies anymore. You'll be a cook." Favreau laughs. "I've reacted to all of this in a very personal way," he says.
Howie Kahn is a James Beard Award–winning writer living in New York City.