Santa Monica is standing in for Miami, as Cubano-munching Art Director Alicia Maccarone and Production Designer Denise Pizzini pose for 1 of the hundreds of “selfies” produced for the social media content of the film!
When Chef Carl Casper [Jon Favreau] suddenly quits his job at trendy Brentwood eatery Gauloises after refusing to compromise his creative integrity for its controlling owner [Dustin Hoffman], he is left to figure out what’s next. Finding himself in Miami, he teams up with his ex-wife Inez [Sofia Vergara], his friend and grill master Martin [John Leguizamo] and his son Percy [Emjay Anthony] to launch a food truck, El Jefe. Taking to the road, Chef Carl begins to reconnect with his passion for cooking—and with his son.
“I found a lot of similarities between the movie world and the culinary world,” says Writer/Director/Producer Favreau. “In both cases you’re dealing with the creative process. With CHEF, we’re watching a character who wants to have an original creative voice. The guy goes from working in this very successful restaurant where he’s making a lot of money but isn’t being creatively challenged to try something closer to his own passions. It’s the food truck that allows Carl to explore his creative instinct.”
“If you’re growing as an artist…that, I think, is the hero’s journey.”
To ensure that Chef Carl’s immersion into food truck culture felt authentic, Favreau turned to the king of Los Angeles’ street food scene, Roy Choi, and to Production Designer Denise Pizzini SDSA.
Choi pioneered the concept of gourmet fast food by embracing social media to promote local appearances of his Kogi BBQ Taco Truck.
Quite fittingly, Pizzini started her career designing restaurants in Texas, and her first of many great film projects was the exquisite LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE!
Favreau’s commitment to the particulars of food culture extended to his insistence on filming iconic eateries—both the rolling and stationary variety—in real locations. “I said, ‘I want to shoot it where it feels truthful, like on Abbott Kinney in Venice, California, where you’ve got First Fridays [the popular food truck gathering] in the parking lot of the Brig.’”
Pizzini adds, “And when the script said Carl had a place in Venice, Jon wanted it to actually be in Venice! We had our offices there, so we would all jump on bikes and go scouting.”
The brief applied to all locations…
“When we shot IRON MAN 3, we spent a wonderful night in Miami’s Little Havana at Hoy Como Ayer,” Favreau recalls. “So that was in my mind when I set out to write the screenplay. It all just fell out of my head. The reason I set scenes in Little Havana, the Marigny neighborhood in New Orleans, Franklin Barbecue and Guero’s in Austin is because those restaurants felt to me like beacons of something authentic.”
Pizzini’s task was to ensure these existing eateries were filmable, and to create the equally authentic-seeming restaurants that begin and end the film…the manifestation of the chef’s hero’s journey…and the food truck that literally provided the journey!
The hero's journey...
To give more background for our hero, she and Set Decorator Bryan Venegas SDSA not only brought together these signature restaurants, but also the significant personal spaces in his life: his ex-wife’s and son’s home, and his partially renovated loft-like apartment which is mostly a test kitchen with rudimentary living quarters.
“I told Jon that we can take a visual journey with Carl,” Pizzini reveals. “So at the beginning of the film, I didn’t want any color. Gauloises restaurant and his apartment are in greyed-out hues. We were very strict with the palette for the early part, as it was soulless in the beginning. Then when we get to Miami, suddenly everything explodes…the color, the music, the food. From then on, the food that he makes is so dynamic compared to the food he was doing at Gauloises.”
Venegas adds, “Carl’s apartment was meant to be dreary, devoid of any real personality, highlighting only the kitchen where he is truly happy and at peace. There is never a mention in the movie on why Carl and Inez split, but throughout the movie there is a sense of loss and real love. Inez, like her hometown of Miami, is full of life and color. Although it’s apparent that she lives a comfortable life, we didn’t want to over-design her place, instead keeping it relaxed and elegant like her character. We purposefully and slowly added color into Carl’s life as his new culinary adventure unfolds and Inez’s loving influence takes hold.”
At the end of the film and his journey, the colors, warmth and spirit of El Jefe restaurant reflected the passion and the zest for life and love that our hero has rediscovered. Venegas describes, “El Jefe was meant to have an inviting, soulful vibe. We deliberately added those quintessential colors of Miami, but in a natural setting. We kept texture from Carl’s life, saving it for the end when the family is reunited, bringing in woods, plants and lighting. We also wanted to add touches of Carl’s adventure through Miami, New Orleans and Austin, to document his rebirth as a chef.”
Thus, there is an entire wall of photos the art department had photo-shopped to show all the places the truck “had been”, photos which were actually created before they went on the road. There is also an enshrined miniature of the truck, which Pizzini points out, “Graphic Designer Ellen King made by hand. She unrolled and quilted the tin and hand-painted the truck, pretty amazing. And Jon has it now!”
When Pizzini presented the set to Favreau for approval, it was in the evening with all the lights aglow and twinkling, and every part of the set from the entrance to bar to dining area to patio reverberating with genuine atmosphere. He said, “…I can see the whole movie right in front of me!” She shares, “It was probably one of the best moments of my career to see how genuinely happy Jon was with what we had done, and to know it was just what he wanted.”
Then Pizzini, Favreau, the other key actors and a core crew set out on the food truck road trip! And what a trip!
The food/taco truck design was based on old Cuban cigar boxes. Choi was consulted on the final design choice as well as on the proper outfitting of the truck with absolutely accurate restaurant equipment. “The food truck was a big undertaking,” Venegas discloses. “We had to tear down the interior first, making it unusable, and create from there, using a lot of elbow grease!” The truck evolves on the cross-country excursion, just as the father, son and best friend do.
The concept of “Embracing social media” was a thread throughout the film, so photos and messages, tweets, vines and instagrams were another part of Pizzini’s team’s output! They also created faux websites, magazine articles and restaurant reviews, past and present. For some of the film’s many simulated “tweets” and “Facebook” pages, Pizzini bought Cubano sandwiches at the Versailles restaurant in Los Angeles and then took her team to the beach for photos and “selfies”!
Venegas laughs, “Denise was a delight to collaborate with. She was open to ideas from the very beginning, which made the experience a real joy.”
“And Jon Favreau is such a brilliant talent. This was definitely a passion project for him, and he wanted to get it right. If he weren’t a filmmaker, he would be a great chef!! Roy Choi was such a great influence around the set. You can really sense how passionate he is about food and what he does. He was there throughout the process with very helpful notes and tons of experience. The two of them were like kids in a candy store, breathing life into this story of love, family and priorities. They played off each other and created something great.”
John Leguizamo, who plays Chef Carl’s best friend, responded to the film’s chef-as-artist metaphor. “Jon and I talked about how food is like art, and how cooking is in a way the same thing as acting. Some actors are out for themselves and glory. And then there are those who are artists. They’re not doing it for the glory, but for the art. They’re trying to say something, trying to change the world. For this man to find himself as an artist, as a chef, as a man and as a dad who wants give his son a little bit of his culture back—that’s a beautiful journey.”