By Mike Scott
With a New Orleans-y name like his, you’d expect “Chef” director Jon Favreau to know not just the difference between his gris-gris and his grillades but also to know riverbound from lakebound by merely sniffing the air. But here’s the Queens, N.Y., native’s little secret: His French-Canadian surname aside, before he arrived in town to scout locations for his culinary road trip, his relationship with the Crescent City was strictly a long-distance one.
He’d long admired the place, and he had already come up with the idea of making it the spiritual touchstone of the feel-good “Chef.” But as far as planting his loafers on the neutral ground? That was but a bucket-list item.
“Well, I’ve loved the music always. But honestly it wasn’t until I was scouting (that I visited),” Favreau said Thursday (May 21), calling to discuss the film. “I had written about it before I was there, just based on what I had seen of it, the music I know, the music that I love. And if you think all the way back to ‘Swingers,’ that music, really — all that horn, that brass section, that jazz that the swing movement came out of — all was from Louis Armstrong and all was from the New Orleans music scene. So kind of since ‘Swingers’ I’ve been fixated on New Orleans culture.”
Years later, when he put pen to paper to write “Chef” — a foodie film that celebrates creativity, particularly that of the culinary variety — New Orleans naturally popped into his mind.
After all, here’s a story about a talented but disillusioned Los Angeles chef — played in the film by Favreau — who presses reset, buys a food truck and hits the road in search of happiness.
“I figure, a guy who loses his passion — where’s the place you want to go? What’s the opposite of that?” Favreau said. “… And so New Orleans really becomes the soul and the spirit that re-engages my chef, the guy who I play, who’s lost his way and lost his mojo.
“I also felt there was something romantic about the strength (of the place),” he said. “Everybody became aware of New Orleans from Katrina and the bouncing back from Katrina. It made you pay attention to something, because from the outside, it seemed that New Orleans had a potential of being wiped away.
“It’s not like you have tall buildings like New York. It’s all about the people and the culture. And so if people leave and that dissipates, then New Orleans’ personality goes away. And the fact that everybody hung in there and came back and rebuilt, I think that really captured the attention of everybody around the country and made us all focus on your city.”
That played right into his hand as his story was taking shape. In addition to New Orleans, his character visits Miami, Austin, Texas; and Los Angeles. Along the way, Favreau made it a point to celebrate each of those cities on-screen for their own distinct flavors.
But if his character was going to undergo a rebirth, is there a better symbolic backdrop for that than New Orleans?
Full plate, full stomach
Even if it has just 20 minutes or so of total screen time, the Crescent City really represented the beating heart of “Chef” from the project’s inception. That role became even more clearly defined in Favreau’s mind once he finally visited, a whirlwind trip in summer 2013 in which he scouted for “Chef,” participated as a celebrity judge in the Bravo network’s cooking reality show “Top Chef” (episode title: “Po’ Boy Smackdown”) — and was coached on local cuisine by one exceedingly knowledgeable source.
“My strongest memory of this whole film, right before we began filming, we were down there judging an episode of ‘Top Chef’ and Emeril had invited (celebrity chef) Roy Choi, who I was working with, to stop by his restaurant and say hello on the way to the airport,” Favreau said. “So he pulled us into Emeril’s, to the chef’s table back in the kitchen, and slammed us one by one with a dozen different dishes.
“He walked us through his first dish that he had cooked and what made him famous, and the first soft-shell crabs of the season. And his banana cream pie that’s made without cream. And his barbecue shrimp that’s made without a roux. And boudin sausage. There’s all of these little, subtle comments on the New Orleans and Louisiana food culture, and explaining the story behind each and every one of them.
“Watching the interaction of these two chefs as I got to eat the food along with them, that’s when I really got what was going on and really understood what a chef’s spirit was and seeing that connection between the two of them. That was life-changing, just because of my appreciation for how chefs interact and the stories that can be in each dish.”
It also was just the tip of the iceberg, as Emeril and other foodie celebs such as Gail Simmons, Tom Colicchio and “Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi happily clued him in on where to go and what to eat to make the most of his short New Orleans experience, both for his first visit and for when he would return to shoot the local scenes for “Chef” in August of last year.
That initial experience also prompted him to revisit his script and rewrite everything in it that had to do with New Orleans, he said. “I was writing and thinking about it, and honestly, through being exposed to it through the food culture and ‘Treme‘ and the music, you start to get a taste of it,” Favreau said. “But it’s not until you go there that you really feel what’s going on.”
Spotted Cat, spottier memories
So what does a New York Favreau’s New Orleans look like? Lots of Frenchmen Street and sampling of the bars and music hotspots collected thereupon. (The Spotted Cat and Three Muses are two that stand out in his memory.) Lots of visits to restaurants, including Peche Seafood Grill and Dooky Chase’s. And, no surprise to anyone who has seen “Chef” and reveled in its reverence for New Orleans’ signature pastry, lots of beignets, both at Cafe du Monde — which plays a key role in Favreau’s film — and Royal Street’s Cafe Beignet.
Regrets? He’s got a few. He didn’t make it to Commander’s Palace, which he says is still on his must-do list. He also wants to come back for Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest. Maybe both. He’s also eager to bring his kids to town, since they have become infected them with the New Orleans bug after watching “Chef.”
“We only shot there for I think for two days, but we had scheduled it so we had a lot of time off while we were there,” Favreau said. “So, we definitely got the full New Orleans experience. I mean, short of Mardi Gras, we got to do the whole deal and we spent time in all the bars down there. …”
“We packed a lot in a very limited amount of time. I do not remember having so much salt ever in my life. I had to sort of re-acclimate after that. My clothes didn’t fit me anymore.”
It could have been worse, though. In fact, it very well might have been worse. Favreau honestly can’t say.
“I’m embarrassed to say there are some places that are a foggy haze as to what they were called, because I had a few in me,” he said, laughing. “Honestly, I can’t remember because I can’t keep up with those chefs. They don’t just have a meal. They have wine with every course, and I can’t keep up with them! But I didn’t want to be a lightweight either, I really wanted to hold up my end.”
Sounds of the city
Interestingly for a movie titled “Chef,” the food is just one part of what makes the story spring to life. Every bit as important — and every bit as delectable — is the music. In fact, Favreau admitted that one of the reasons he was inspired to write New Orleans as a character in his film was so he could weave that distinct Crescent City sound throughout.
That’s why the first thing that “Chef” audiences will hear in the film is a rowdy shot of the Wild Magnolias’ “Brother John is Gone” as Favreau’s chef character is introduced.
“Yeah, right from the jump,” Favreau said. “That was from the Katrina relief album. It was ‘Brother John is Gone/Herc-Jolly-John’ and (it was) just the energy and the brashness of the sound that really captured the confidence and the energy of the chef.
“Most of the rest of the soundtrack until they hit New Orleans has a Cuban flavor. But I wanted to come right out of the gates, the movie starts — ‘Chef’ — and then you get right into the drums and the chanting and the singing and the horns. I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a movie that’s come out of the blocks that fast from the jump, from the first image.”
It’s also why the Rebirth Brass Band’s “(I Feel Like) Busting Loose” busts loose when Favreau and his co-stars roll into town about midway through the film. And it’s why Favreau and co-star John Leguizamo’s characters sing along — perhaps a bit pitchy, but with all due enthusiasm — to the Hot 8 Brass Band’s rendition of “Sexual Healing” in another scene that Favreau saw as a pivotal character-development moment.
“I thought, ‘What I great high point for the film,’ and it connects back to the opening scene of the film and you have that sense of completion,” he sad. “Then, as a lark, I said, ‘Let’s sing along.’ To me, it’s great — and, look, it’s not a cheap song to license on a low-budget film like this. But to me it’s just the culmination of the movie and it just shows that he’s got his spirit back and he’s happy finally and you can tell he wasn’t in the beginning. Narratively, it gives me a great tool to pay off the arc of the character.”
In other words, like all of the New Orleans flavors in the movie — the food, the music, the spirit, the smiles — it spoke to something deep in the filmmaker. Here, he saw it as a means to accomplish far more than just bridging from one scene to another or filling space in a montage sequence.
“I love the excitement and the upbeat quality to all that music, especially when you know the hardships these musicians historically had been going through, way back to Louis Armstrong, Louis Prima. It’s a celebration, but generally set against a backdrop of unhappy times,” Favreau said.
“Happiness in the face of unhappy circumstances to me is extremely heroic,” he continued. “To me, that’s what’s so fascinating and uplifting about New Orleans. That city never has it easy, yet it always has the most fun. Even the funerals, where you’re making a decision to push past the pain and celebrate. To me, it says that celebration and happiness is a choice and a not result of circumstances. And I think that’s an inspiring note. It’s something we all should keep in mind.”
This story was originally published in May 2014 by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune.