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Chefs see themselves in ‘Chef’

From left, Margaret and Irene Li of Mei Mei, Tim Maslow of Ribelle, James DiSabatino of Roxy’s Grilled Cheese, and Rachel Klein of Liquid Art House at the AMC Loews Boston Common.JESSICA RINALDI/GLOBE STAFF

The new film “Chef” begins with former wonderboy chef Carl Casper (played by writer, director, and actor Jon Favreau) breaking down a whole pig and continues with many scenes of restaurant, home, and food-truck cooking — from pork belly and squid to carne asada and grilled cheese. Longtime food lover Favreau trained in French culinary technique for the film and was coached by chef Roy Choi, creator of the Los Angeles food truck phenomenon Kogi. (Stay for the end of the credits to see Choi instruct Favreau on the art of making grilled cheese.)

The food-centric film follows Casper, who is stuck in a creative rut working in a high-end, but soulless, LA restaurant. After a scathing review and an ill-advised Twitter battle with a critic goes viral, Casper pieces his life back together and rekindles his creative passion as he opens a food truck, assisted by his long-neglected 10-year-old son and his devoted line cook.

Favreau was serious about cooking, he says, and about doing everything in the film the way it should be done. "When I walk into a restaurant kitchen," he says, "I want people to know that I got it right."


To see if he did and to talk about the film, we invited a group of Boston-area chefs to a screening on a rare Monday afternoon off (one chef was opening a new restaurant in just over 24 hours). The round-table discussion included Tim Maslow, 29, executive chef of Strip-T's in Watertown and executive chef and owner of Ribelle in Brookline, and Rachel Klein, 39, executive chef of Liquid Art House in Boston, which opened last week. The group also included food-truck veterans with brick-and-mortar projects: James DiSabatino, 27, owner of Roxy's Gourmet Grilled Cheese, and Irene Li, 24, and her sister Margaret Li, 31, co-owners of Mei Mei Restaurant and Street Kitchen.

Q. Was seeing "Chef" a constructive way to spend your afternoon off?

James DiSabatino: It was a pretty entertaining caricature of someone who works in the industry. I had fun watching it.

Irene Li: It had many glimpses of moments that resonate with us. Like hanging out with Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr. That's all normal stuff.

Q. What aspects of this chef's life were most accurate?

Rachel Klein: I have kids and I know I don't see them a lot. That resonated a lot. You put in15 or 16 hours and there's not much time left for your family.


Tim Maslow: They had a lot of the factual things correct. The place he lived, that's what most cooks' places look like. They look like [expletive]. Chefs don't really care how they dress or what their facial hair or haircut looks like. It is generally about the food. Also, how curt he was with everybody but his kitchen staff. And the loyalty he had for his staff and they had for him.

Irene Li: How hard he worked, how much he threw himself into everything he did. Watching some of the kitchen scenes, the vibe felt pretty real.

Klein: No matter what he was doing, he was thinking about food even if he wasn't in a restaurant situation or around restaurant people. And waking up his kid to show him food, I do that.

Q. The chef has a very dramatic confrontation with a food critic who gives him a terrible review. Did you relate?

Irene Li: I appreciate that they portrayed how hard it can be to not take criticism personally. The chef kept saying, "It hurts when you say that." I can definitely relate.

Klein: I'm opening a new restaurant and Tim was just reviewed. You can tell yourself that food is subjective and it's just their opinion. But at the end of the day, this person has readers or followers. They can put asses in the seats.

DiSabatino: I thought it wasn't that far off from what people have the potential of doing. Everyone is that close to the edge.


Behind the scenes during the making of “Chef”: (from left) John Leguizamo, who plays a line cook; Jon Favreau, who wrote, directed, and stars; Bobby Cannavale, who plays a sous chef, and Korean-American chef (and food-truck king) Roy Choi, who served as a technical consultant.Merrick Morton

Maslow: When I worked for a famous chef, we knew that when a reviewer came in, you just made sure everything was perfect. You would fire two of everything and send out the best one. Like in the movie, you would make sure the people around them are having a great time. I don't necessarily know that people who are not in the industry understand that a review could put many people out of work. I don't think anonymous bloggers or people who Yelp know that.

Q. How did the food in the film look?

Maslow: You saw the food but nobody said what it was, like a shirred egg stuffed back into a shell with some potato chips and caviar on top. Or the cote de boeuf or pork belly that he made at home.

DiSabatino: It's probably more appealing if you look at those dishes and don't know what they are. There's a mystique to it.

Klein: I think they tried to work on some of the presentation, but it's dated. The whole swooshing of sauces and the spoons. Been there, done that.

Maslow: We've outlawed swooshes in the restaurant. No one's allowed to do that. You'll get a flogging. Now it's a little more Jackson Pollock.

Margaret Li: I think it makes sense since they were trying to make a movie that appeals to the masses. There were some nice shots of cooking that gave enough of a glimpse for people to be intrigued and excited. I definitely got hungry.


Q. How well did they capture life in a food truck?

Irene Li: They seemed understaffed.

DiSabatino: There was a line of 40 people and nobody was taking orders. I was having anxiety just watching that.

Margaret Li: In a food truck you're reaching over each other, you're trying not to burn yourself. It would be great if we could roll into a spot in front of a concert and sell to everyone we want to. Taking into account all the Hollywood non-realism on the logistical side, I think they captured a nice slice of all the chaos that goes on inside.

Q. Were there any moments that stood out as especially true-to-life?

Maslow: When the chef bought his kid a knife, I almost cried. My dad bought me my first knife. It was a much nicer knife than that. I don't feel a lot of sentiment in my life, but that actually felt pretty good.

DiSabatino: It had to be the way they used cornstarch in the hot truck. They could've been over the top and kitschy about it, but it was actually entertaining to watch. Normally there's a box left in the bathroom that's labeled "for restroom use only" so it doesn't end up in food rotation.

Klein: The kid stuff. We're in this profession where we give so much to everybody else. The people who are closest to us are the ones who get neglected.


Interview was condensed and edited. Michael Floreak can be reached at michaelfloreak@gmail.com.