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Jon Favreau's 'Chef': Real star is the food

Writer-director Jon Favreau stars in

Writer-director Jon Favreau stars in "Chef," with Sofia Vergara, Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr. Credit: Open Roads Films

It's OK to call it food porn. After all, those lovingly shot scenes of cutting, chopping, buttering, puréeing, frying, baking, plating and consuming food in "Chef," opening Friday, are aimed at creating an orgasmic pleasure in the viewer. And if you don't want a bite of the film's signature dish -- a beautifully prepared Cuban sandwich -- after seeing writer-director Jon Favreau's film, then you must be impervious to sensual pleasure.

Using the term food porn to describe his movie is "pretty accurate," says Favreau, who also stars as a high-end Los Angeles chef who loses his job and regains his passion for cooking by running a food truck that specializes in mouthwatering Cubanos. "If food porn implies you get a physical response by watching the film," says Favreau, "that's a compliment."

Food porn "is a positive term" to describe a film like "Chef," adds Nilou Motamed, editor in chief of the food website "As long as there's balance, as long as you're telling a narrative and you have beautiful visuals. You want to hear the crunch, see the glistening of the fat. You want food to be close enough that you can put your fork in it."



Plenty of films feature food scenes. But not that many are about food culture -- its preparation, consumption and mythology. And getting it right is important.

"The hard part is accuracy; you want to get the kitchen culture right," says Favreau. "For a movie like this, I wanted to get it authentically correct. And you have to get the menu right. I wanted to make sure if a chef saw the movie, he'd know we got it right."

To make a good foodie movie, "you need the food porn, the shots that make you salivate in the theater," adds Adam Rapoport, editor in chief of Bon Appétit magazine. "But you also need that genuine passion for the food, the characters who really care. People know when something's real and when it's not. And that resonates. You have to sell it. Otherwise, it's just a cooking show on TV. There has to be something that's about the love of cooking."

Not that all foodie movies go the extra mile. The bad ones, says Motamed, make you "think food is something you slap on as a backdrop. And whether you are showing food or the lifestyle around it, you need to make it feel like it's part and parcel of the character's DNA."

Favreau also notes that bad food movies tend to misunderstand that what looks good on-screen and what the reality of a kitchen is, can be two different things. When it comes to showing the food, you have to have the color and sound right, he says, and "understanding what's beautiful to a chef is different from what's beautiful to a movie studio. A chef loves stainless steel, a clean kitchen and layering of flavors. He loves those containers filled with different-colored purees and mixtures."

There's also the issue of how you appeal to folks who are not necessarily food experts, to attract the largest audience possible. Too much "inside baseball" foodie stuff could turn them off. Too little, and it's not a foodie film.

"You have to emphasize the human experience of cooking," says Motamed. "The looking for what brings you joy, connecting around a dinner table. Food is the great equalizer; we all have memories of sitting around and eating together."



"You need an interesting story line that pulls the movie along," adds Rapoport. "There's a narrative independent of how creamy the mashed potatoes are. Even if you're not a foodie, there's always that easy sell of 'super crispy chicken will make you hungry,' even if you're not interested in the artistry behind it."

In this respect, Favreau scores big. "Chef" -- which won the Audience Award for best feature film at the recent Tribeca Film Festival -- is filled with yummy food-prep and consumption scenes, from ritzy restaurant fare to a sequence in which he taste-tests an amazingly scrumptious-looking piece of smoked brisket at a barbecue joint in Austin, Texas. But the most mouthwatering scene of all might be the loving preparation of the simplest dish: a grilled cheese sandwich.

"Food is very cinematic," says Favreau. "There is something about food that lends itself so well to cinema. It's a very visual thing, if it's photographed right, and with the right sound effects, you can make the audience's mouth water. And as a filmmaker, that's a very compelling set of tools. You don't have to be a foodie to want that grilled cheese sandwich."



For film-food gourmets

You want irresistible cinematic food porn? Here are a few flicks guaranteed to get your salivary glands flowing.

TAMPOPO (1985) This "Ramen Western" is about a truck driver who decides to help a family-run noodle shop. It's a fun combination of food movie and comedy, with a spaghetti Western influence.

BABETTE'S FEAST (1987) Winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, this sumptuous movie is about two Danish spinster sisters who take in a French refugee who decides to cook them the meal of a lifetime. And it sure is.

LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE (1992) A Mexican film about the sensual power of food, in which a young woman's repressed love is reflected in the amazing dishes she cooks.

EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN (1994) A chef lives with his three grown daughters. And the meals he serves -- OMG!

BIG NIGHT (1996) Two brothers who own a failing Italian restaurant try to save it by preparing a special meal for an expected guest, the entertainer Louis Prima. Their timpani, which is basically a dough "drum" filled with layers of pasta, meat, sauce and eggs, is a wonder to behold.

MOSTLY MARTHA (2001) A workaholic German chef has to adjust to major changes in her life, including her relationship with her male sous-chef.

JULIE AND JULIA (2009) New York chef Julie Powell decides to make every recipe in Julia Child's classic "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."

JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI (2011) Documentary about perfectionist sushi chef Jiro Ono, and his relationship with his two sushi-chef sons.

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