In the new movie Chef, writer/director Jon Favreau steps in front of the camera to play Carl Casper, a once well-regarded chef who's fallen into serving boring, predictable food at a successful Los Angeles restaurant. Just as James Woods replaced Apu at the Kwik-E-Mart to prepare for an upcoming role, Favreau knew he would need to enlist the help of a professional chef to make the cooking scenes look right.
Someone who could teach him to chop, sear and swear like an actual chef. Someone who understands that corn starch can substitute for Gold Bond when things get really hot in the kitchen.
Favreau sought the expert advice of Roy Choi, the Los Angeles chef whose Kogi food truck blended Choi's Korean heritage with Mexican street tacos. Kogi's success propelled Choi to a Food & Wine Best New Chef win in 2010 and spawned a host of imitators, many of whom can be found in Houston. As the movie's culinary consultant, Choi helped develop the cliched menu Casper serves to food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), as well as the dishes Casper creates in his own kitchen and the Cuban sandwich that (spoiler alert) ultimately paves the way to his redemption.
"For me, I never abandoned the truck. Even though I’ve opened other things, the truck is still the lifeblood of who I am."
Choi tells CultureMap that Favreau has been a Kogi fan for years. "He had had it before. Gwyneth Paltrow, in the early Kogi days, was up on the truck," Choi tells CultureMap. "They had it on the Iron Man 2 set as a thank you to the staff. That was in our early days. It was a big deal for us.
"Jon called me out of the blue. They were looking for a culinary consultant, and my name came up. He called me and said 'Can you meet me for a day? I have a project I want to talk to you about.' He met me. We jumped into a car and hung out for six hours. The rest, as they say, is history."
One of the movie's signature scenes occurs when Castle serves a series of cliched dishes to Michel: Caviar egg, frisee salad, filet mignon and, worst of all, chocolate lava cake. "The lava cake was a series of events. He had something like that in there when I first saw the script," Choi says. "We had done Top Chef together. He had Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons there from Top Chef.
"We were still in the research phase . . . He asked them what is the thing that would make any chef gag. Or any person just drop their heart. They said chocolate lava cake."
The rest of the menu followed a similar path. "It wasn’t all just tongue and cheek and a joke. It was being really sympathetic to real restaurants out there that have to go through this. I know hundreds of restaurants that have seared scallops in beurre blanc, hundreds that have French onion soup, hundreds that have frisee salad," Choi says.
Fleeing Food Trucks
Turning to the current state of food trucks, Choi admits he doesn't know much about the Houston food truck scene, but the chef has strong opinions about the trend of truck owners getting off the street by opening brick and mortar locations.
"That’s a bit of a cultural thing. It’s good that the truck is a platform for a lot of people . . . . It was a bridge for them to move on and create something else in their lives. That’s great that they’re able to move on and make something," Choi says.
He notes that's not the only path though. And it's certainly not his path.
"There’s also the Latino culture in America where the truck is a huge deal. I think it comes down to where you come from in life. For me, I never abandoned the truck. Even though I’ve opened other things, the truck is still the lifeblood of who I am. That’s because I enjoy it. I believe in it. It’s everything that I am.
"The truck is fun. I don’t understand why you would leave the truck. It’s so much fun."
Generally, Chef, which has garnered good reviews, accurately depicts the bawdy banter of a professional kitchen, but one moment in the film struck me as false. Castle and two chefs drink a shot of a name brand vodka at a bar. Vodka? It must have been a paid placement.
"Maybe it would have been tequila more than vodka, but if that was all that was false to you, I feel very good about the film, then," Choi says.
"If we fucked up on the alcohol choice, we’ll take that."
Chef is playing in theaters across Houston.