Before he wrote and starred in “Swingers” and went on to direct hits like “Elf” and “Iron Man,” Jon Favreau spent four years in Chicago learning improv at theaters like Second City, the Annoyance Theatre and Improv Olympic.
“Everything came from my improv training,” says Favreau from L.A.. “It was the key to performing, it was the key to writing, to editing. The whole idea of forwarding the action, playing to the top of your intelligence, that was a big one.
“I think Chicago has always been prominent in the careers of a lot of people who’ve made it past there. I definitely could not have done it without my years in Chicago.”
With “Chef,” opening Friday, the 47-year-old filmmaker takes things back to the lower-budget days. He writes, directs and stars as Carl, a chef whose creativity is stifled by the restaurant’s owner (Dustin Hoffman) and slammed by an influential critic (Oliver Platt). Carl then must revive his career while also working on his relationship with his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) and 10-year-old son.
Favreau spent a week training at an accelerated culinary academy and then a month working in kitchens with L.A. celebrity chef Roy Choi (an adviser on “Chef”), who included Favreau on his kitchen staff during a tasting event for Wolfgang Puck and David Chang.
“Wolfgang Puck made me cook in front of everybody after service was over,” Favreau says. “He made me cook an omelet for him with everybody looking on and cat-calling. If he didn’t like the egg I cooked, he would throw it on the floor and make me do it again. So I got a little taste of kitchen life there.”
The newbie must have been sweating bullets, right?
“It was fun,” he said. “I knew what was going on and I was honored by it, so that’s nothing compared to the flopsweat that you feel when you’re dying onstage in an improv scene in the back room of a saloon in Chicago.”
Who needs to be better at multi-tasking, a director or a chef: “A director. A chef is pretty methodical; you plan everything out. The orders that come sometimes can stack up on you, but you essentially know what you’re going to do. The game plan is in place. A director, there’s a lot of unknowns. You deal with a lot of personalities and people. You’re front of the house and back of the house when you’re a director. A chef is running the show in the back and he’s got his team under him..”
Who’s more insecure, chefs or filmmakers: “It’s a pretty even match. They’re both OCD. They both are, at their core. No matter how confident they come off and no matter how opinionated they are, the minute somebody that they’re serving or performing for doesn’t like what they’re doing, it completely takes them out of their game.”
Something Favreau, who says he lacks an adventurous palate, is squeamish about eating: “I have trouble with certain innards. If the anatomy of what I’m eating isn’t disguised enough, I can’t put it out of my head. I have a tough time with guts. If they’re prepared properly, it’s actually quite delicious.”
A food truck that can’t logically exist: Steak. “The temperature required is too high to really do it safely, but that would be great if you could have a super-high temperature grill on a truck. That’s the key about getting a good steak.”
Who should be the judges on a hypothetical “Top Chef” spinoff called “Top Director”: Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, David Fincher, Martin Scorsese
Who should host that show: Ryan Seacrest
Instead of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” what the title would be if there was a movie called, “Jon Dreams of ___”: “[Laughs] … of a good night’s sleep. [Laughs] of a restful evening of uninterrupted sleep. I have three kids, and I have a lot to worry about, so there’s nothing like a good, restful night of sleep.”
A filmmaker who’s able to maintain his vision, even with a big movie: “I think [Christopher] Nolan’s pretty good at carrying an auteur’s vision all the way through, a sense of authorship through a film. I think he has a really good command of the cinematic sense.”
Why Nolan can do it and others can’t: “He’s definitely a holdover from another era. He shoots on film, and he has a certain way that he likes to work, where if people want to work with him they have to adhere to the way he goes about things. He’s established that as a baseline for collaboration, and he’s able to stick to that.”
On the impact of movie reviews: “What’s nice about the Internet is everybody gets to put their opinion out there. When I’m looking for feedback about something I’m curious about, thankfully there are enough sources that you can get a really good overview. I find that the overall impression generally wins out, and if there’s a predominance of a certain opinion then I think you’ve won the battle. I think it’s harder with something like ‘Cowboys and Aliens’ where there was an overall lack of enthusiasm for it..”
Someone he hasn’t met who’s money but doesn’t even know it: President Clinton. “I’ve never met him, but he seems like a swell chap.”
Someone he knows who doesn’t realize how money he or she is: “Unfortunately in Hollywood everybody kind of is aware [laughs] of how good they are.”
Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at noon on NBC.
Want more? Discuss this article and others on RedEye's Facebook page.