It’s been 20 years since indie actor and filmmaker Jon Favreau wrote and starred in the iconic young-hustlers-in-LA film Swingers.
Since then Favs has gone onto a stellar career as both an actor and perhaps even more so as a director: Think Elf, Iron Man, Chef and The Jungle Book, which has made more than—wait for it—$500 million dollars worldwide in less than two weeks.
So we caught up with him on the set of Speakeasy to learn the secrets of filmmaking and his other passion, cooking…
“The first thing I mastered was the rags in the kitchen, believe it or not—whether they’re damp or dry, what you use them for, how you hold them, how you fold them… that’s the key to making the chef look authentic.”
1. Learn from the best and get your hands dirty.
In preparing for my movie Chef (2014), I learned from Roy Choi, who’d created the very successful and gourmet Korean taco truck Kogi. He was great and he’s become a friend, but chefs are also very good at being teachers. Not only do they teach you what to do but also why you’re doing it, and it will change the way you think about things beyond just the food. I find myself looking forward to being in the kitchen, loving the idea that I can take ingredients that may be in a fridge and whip something up for people.
2. In filmmaking and cooking, surprise is key.
Cooking is very much like directing, because it’s nice to be able to wow your audience, to surprise them in a way that they didn’t anticipate—in a pleasant way. When you can cook a good meal for people, that’s what I really like.
3. Don’t scrimp on preparation.
Then there’s the mise en place (“put in place”), which is how you prepare beforehand so that when it’s time to cook you’re not scrambling; everything’s ready and in place—the food, your seasoning, your tools… and rags. [Laughs] And if you can do all those things right, you can be much more effective and it’s much more fun, and a lot less stress.
4. Master your equipment.
Sure you need a good knife, and that’s essential, something you feel comfortable with. But the big thing I learned from Roy, the first thing he wanted me to master was the rags in the kitchen, believe it or not—whether they’re damp or dry, what you use them for, how you hold them, how you fold them. He said that was the key of all things to making the chef look authentic. Because what comes from that is how you maneuver around your pots and pans, the oven, how you clean up… When most home cooks are done in the kitchen, you need to send in a group to clean up after them. But when a chef is done cooking a meal, it’s like they were never there, like a ninja. You’re in and out and leave no trace.
5. Everything matters, including your posture.
Roy would point to different people cooking in the kitchen and say, “See how he stands, you’re going to be able to taste that in the food. He’s not standing right.” I thought he was being metaphorical. But really he meant it, that you can tell by somebody’s posture the way the food’s going to taste. Because there has to be a mindfulness and focus, and an enthusiasm—if you are just dragging your heels, the food will reflect that. And it comes out in many different ways that are hard to explain. But it has to do with how attentive you’re being, how careful and thoughtful you are with your seasoning, and if the food is going right to the edge of the perfect amount of doneness.
6. Know your limits, then go beyond them.
When you’re cooking, you want to take it the point where you’re seasoning it boldly but not over-seasoning it, where you’re cooking it right to the point before it’s overdone. And in pushing those limits, you have to have total focus—that’s what’s different between a chef and what I do. There’s a certain boldness when they’re cooking. I can make a good meal, but Roy might step in and add a pinch more seasoning, cook it a little bit longer and it would taste completely different.
7. Use the finest tools to tell your story.
I very much enjoyed directing The Jungle Book, and it’s very different from anything I’ve done before. I’d gotten a taste here and there what it’s like working on effects movies like Ironman. But there’s also a lot of new technology available and there are people who are artists who are now very, very good at working with these tools, because these movies take so many years to make. You’re effectively seeing in the theaters the technology that was around two and three years ago. And so it’s fun to see what these artists and technical people have come up with as new tools to tell stories. It was quite an education and also wonderful to work with all the voice talent (Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Ben Kingsley), people that I’ve always wanted to work with and had been a fan of—pulling them all together to work on something like this was a real treat.