There is an idea simmering in the SxSW kitchen, and the man turning up the heat is Jon Favreau.
The opening night film, the first course of this year’s SxSW Film Festival if you will, was Chef; written, directed, produced by, and starring Favreau. Though and are featured in the film, discard any notions of Chef existing within the Marvel universe. As the man himself confessed, he "called in some favors" to make that happen. Instead, Chef represents a return to Favreau’s roots in independent comedy. The movie centers on, appropriately, a chef from Miami who returns home after a failed bid to open a restaurant in L.A. He then sets up shop in a food truck called "El Jefe" and proceeds upon the comeback trail one cubano sandwich at a time.
As part of the film’s promotion, Favreau and his friend/culinary sensei Roy Choi set up a cooking demonstration at Austin restaurant Qui. They prepared a couple of entrees and discussed how their friendship was an essential ingredient in the film’s production. It was Roy's job not only to teach Jon to cook the dishes in the movie, but also how to carry himself in the kitchen so as to be authentic in his performance as a chef. This demonstration is both highly unusual and highly appropriate for SxSW.
The first bite of the demonstration found Favreau admitting that Chef was a film to which he felt more personally connected than he had to any of his previous works. “The script came out fully formed,” he explained. He revealed that cooking was a bonding experiencing for his family growing up in Queens. His step-mom is evidently a great cook, and they would form a bond over trying to “solve recipes."
But if Sundays in the kitchen with step-mom represented Favreau’s primary cooking education, working with chef Roy Choi of late was his master class. Though Favs was the helmer of the film, when speaking of Roy's involvement on set, Jon openly admitted, “he’s the boss.”
Roy was the chef at the Beverly Hilton, which, among many other feathers in its prestigious cap, caters the Golden Globes ceremony. But then, Choi candidly admitted, the economy went sour and he found himself out of work. Unable to find employment in another kitchen, much like the protagonist in Chef, Roy started up a food truck in which he fused his Korean upbringing with popular Mexican staples.
As Favreau mentioned several times during the demonstration, their focus with the food in the movie was to prepare simple food offerings in such a way as to make them gourmet. Favreau stated that he would ask Roy about the most sophisticated way to prepare even something like grilled cheese. The dedication to augmenting and re-imagining comfort food also provided the catalyst for the Kogi tacos (made with shredded Korean spare rib meat) that have made Roy so popular. They were served during the demonstration in what Roy swore was "the first time the Kogi taco has been served outside of L.A." Spoiler alert: delicious.
Roy used Twitter to promote his food truck, again an element that weaves its way into the movie. He told us that he initially wasn’t sure of the response he would get using social media marketing, until one day they ended up on UCLA's campus and had folks lined up around the block. Now his Kogi food truck is one of the most popular and sought-after mobile dining establishments in the country.
But let us now return to that idea, removing it from the backburner. During the demonstration, casually remarked that SxSW should have a devoted food component to complement Film, Music, and Interactive. In this writer’s view, that idea leaves a delightfully favorable taste in the mouth. It was during this demo that it became clear that Chef, and the story behind it, provides the perfect convergence point of all things Austin and the proverbial proof in the pudding that SxSW Food is more than a half-baked idea.
Austin is not a city that loves food; no, in fact it’s more accurate to say that Austin fetishizes its food. “A great food town,” as Favreau put it, is a bit of an understatement. Favreau’s Chef (again, the festival’s opening film) understands this, as Austin is featured in the movie; Franklin’s barbecue getting a rather hypnotically delicious visual shout-out. Not only that, but with interactive becoming such a fixture of the festival, it seems doubly fitting that Jon Favreau’s culinary mentor used social media to reinvent his business model.
All the ingredients are there, and I have to agree with Favreau that SxSW desperately needs a dedicated food component. All the better if it means more filmmakers will follow Favs’ lead and swarm down to Austin in food trucks harboring tasty tie-ins to their latest cinematic entrees.
Chef is being distributed by Open Road Films and is due in theaters May 9th.