The lights were dim. Gray-haired musicians in linen guayaberas filled the small stage, and the hips of every man and woman, young and old, moved to the rhythm. It was an exhilarating moment in one of Miami's oldest hangouts, Little Havana's Hoy Como Ayer. And there, right in the middle of the swaying hips and old Cuban percussionists, stood Jon Favreau, taking it all in.
The director/actor was in town filming Iron Man 3, and between takes, all he wanted was an authentic night out in the Magic City. "I wanted to really experience Miami. I wanted to taste the food, I wanted to buy a real guayabera, I wanted to hear real Cuban music," he recalls. Favreau wouldn't find any of that authenticity on South Beach, locals insisted. So instead, guided by a native, he explored Calle Ocho. The Cuban culture he experienced at Hoy Como Ayer inspired him to write again.
"I thought how [Hoy Como Ayer] would be such a magical place to put a scene. I didn't know what movie I would do there — or if I would do it at all — but when I started writing Chef months later, it popped into my head."
Chef, opening this Friday, recalls Favreau's earlier work, the '90s cult favorite Swingers, at least in its writing process; both films took just a few weeks to write. "When you write like that, you don't know where it's coming from," he says. "But you know it's very sincere."
Unlike Swingers, however, Chef isn't a story of bros sharing cocktails. The film takes the classic coming-of-age tale and flips it on its head by centering on a character in the middle stages of his life who undergoes a journey of self-discovery.
Favreau's character, Carl, is a chef working at a restaurant in Los Angeles. After lashing out at his boss for creative food differences, Carl is left unemployed and with few options. He goes on a trip to Miami with his ex-wife, Inez (the voluptuous Sofia Vergara), a frequent Miami visitor; and his 10-year-old son, Percy (newcomer Emjay Anthony). After experiencing the nightlife on Calle Ocho and ending the evening eating a Cuban sandwich at Versailles, Carl is motivated to launch his own food truck making Cuban fare. Miami cuisine sure has a way of changing people's lives.
Carl's truck, called "El Jefe" and portrayed by real-life Miami food truck Jefe's Original Fish Taco and Burger, serves a classic Cuban sandwich as a main dish, alongside yuca fries, plátanos, and arroz con pollo — if your abuela can say it, he can make it.
But Carl's time in Miami is just a brief vacation. He soon begins the trek back to Los Angeles with his son and assistant cook. Together they take El Jefe across the country, making stops along the way in New Orleans and Austin, two other food meccas. Favreau insists, however, that despite the stimulating foods native to Louisiana and Texas, his biggest inspiration "came from visiting Miami."
"I wanted to present this guy as a man whose marriage and whose fatherhood have been a casualty of his career, and because of that, he's lost his passion for cooking food," he explains. The food truck gives Carl a second chance, allowing him to "start from scratch and reconnect with his love of food and with his role as a father."
If that sounds schlocky, well, you're not wrong. Favreau isn't the first writer or director or actor you'd think of for your earnest, emotional indie film, and most of the "reconnecting" his character does is conveyed through montages and catchy music. The film is most successful when it shows off its well-written dialogue. Clearly, Favreau is committed to the idea of his character's butterfly moment.
"The hero's journey, in the Joseph Campbell sense, is a character who starts off very broken, and you want him to go through a transformation and grow and change over the course of the film," he says. Carl is that hero, a man who evolves into "somebody he is more happy to be than he was at the beginning."
And Favreau should know, having recently gone through a version of that story himself. Writing Chef, he says, renewed his passion for filmmaking. Like Carl's food truck, the film was a vehicle to contentment. It's like Eat, Pray, Love minus the praying.
"It's been almost 20 years since I wrote Swingers, and it's nice to know I still have the ability to do it, and that's exciting," Favreau says. "Much like in the film, when Carl starts the food truck and feels very much renewed and reconnected to what made him excited to get into the business to begin with, I feel the same way with this film."