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'Chef' director, hungry for smaller scale, cooks up a foodie film

| Tuesday, May 20, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

The way Jon Favreau sees it, the world is divided into people who are interested in food and people who aren't.

“And I,” he declares, “am a member of the former category.”

That will be obvious to anyone who watches his new film “Chef” — opening Friday in Pittsburgh — which Favreau wrote, stars in and directed. “Chef” displays food in a luxurious, almost religious way. Critics have, perhaps justifiably, noted a lack of complexity in both plot and characters, and an overly sunny denouement. But one can't deny the film's appeal to the taste buds.

Even a simple grilled cheese sandwich, meticulously prepared by a father for his young son, is almost too delicious to look at, and evokes immediate empathy for this divorced dad trying to make a connection with his child in the most elemental way: through his stomach.

And it makes ours growl.

Which is what Favreau was going for.

“There's something hypnotic to me when I watch food being prepared on a cooking show, or in ‘Eat Drink Man Woman,' ” he says, referring to the 1994 Ang Lee foodie classic. “There's something incredibly compelling and cinematic about it. And it's amazing that it can actually make your mouth water.”

Not all food films make the mouth water. Another entry this year, the recent “Tasting Menu,” based at a fictional restaurant in Spain, fell curiously short in that regard. (Later this summer comes “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” starring Helen Mirren.)

Of the many delectable contenders, besides the Lee film, foodies still swoon when they think of “Babette's Feast,” “Big Night” or the animated “Ratatouille,” which culminates in the glorious preparation of that simple vegetable dish in the title.

Likewise, “Chef” comes down to a simple dish: the Cuban sandwich.

Carl Casper (Favreau) is a gifted but volatile chef at a swank Los Angeles restaurant. His boss (Dustin Hoffman), orders him to play it safe on the very night a major food critic is coming. Reluctantly, he does, and predictably gets excoriated by the critic.

Things go way downhill, and Casper is fired. He rebuilds his life by going back to basics: sprucing up a filthy old truck and turning it into a temple for the perfect Cuban sandwich.

There's a popular view that Casper the chef is really Favreau the director, and the risk-averse restaurant owner a big studio honcho — and “Chef,” an independent film, the food truck. Favreau, who directed the “Iron Man” films, says that's only partly true — he actually loves both genres.

Yet, it's clear “Chef” is a labor of love for Favreau, who confesses that he was so inspired during filming, he's installing a full commercial kitchen in his home, including a wood-burning pizza oven, a flat-top grill and maybe one day even an outdoor smoker, for succulent brisket.

Still, making food work at home is different from making it work onscreen. How do you do that?

“I learned a lot about photography and sound design,” he says. “It's partly about the music. Part of it is the lighting, and part is the way you color-time it,” he says, referring to the process of adjusting the colors of a shot. “A slight change in color can make something look nauseating.”

Favreau had help. Noted L.A. chef Roy Choi was the food consultant, on set every day.

“If you do a commercial, the food gets sprayed with glycerin, and then gets thrown away,” Favreau says. “But when you're dealing with a chef, it's about honoring the food. And so everything we cooked, we served up afterward. When we broke down a pig, we parceled it up and sent it home with the crew.”

There was also serious training involved, as John Leguizamo, who plays Casper's buddy and line cook, can attest. He spent a month doing research at a Manhattan restaurant.

“It was hard, man,” Leguizamo says. “So many sharp objects, hot burning items — you make the wrong move, somebody's gonna get hurt.”

On the set, he says, there were similar risks. “The chef would tell me, ‘Lean in, your arms are dead.' I said, ‘I don't want to burn myself!' He said, ‘Take the risk.' I said, ‘You take the risk!' ” (We're leaving out the expletives.)

But it was all for authenticity, Leguizamo says. Both actor and director speak of “Chef” as a passion project.

Which may explain that happily-ever-after ending. Favreau confesses to having injected a dose of his own life view. Describing it, he becomes surprisingly emotional, not above shedding a genuine tear.

“You know, I think life's hard,” he says. “And ultimately, I believe in my heart that if you're a hero in your own story, then there's a happy ending.

“I do think life has a happy ending. I'll go on record as saying that.”

Jocelyn Noveck is a staff writer for the Associated Press.

Mojo Pork Cubanos

Food, fatherhood and fame were a recipe for disaster for Carl Casper (Jon Favreau), a hotshot L.A. chef who's burnt out and tired of compromise in the kitchen. After waging a war on Twitter with an influential restaurant critic, Carl's life takes a dramatic turn that forces him to start over and rediscover why he became a chef in the first place.

This recipe got its start in Florida, where Carl renews his culinary career and life journey.

Preparation Time: 30 minutes

6 ounces thinly sliced boiled ham

Softened butter, for brushing

6 6-inch-long soft baguettes or heros, split lengthwise

Yellow mustard, for brushing

34 pound thinly sliced Mojo-Marinated Pork Shoulder (seerecipe) or store-bought roast pork

12 pound thinly sliced Swiss cheese

3 half-sour dill pickles, thinly sliced lengthwise

Heat a large cast-iron griddle or panini press. Add the ham slices to the griddle and cook over moderate heat, turning once, until browned in spots, for about 1 minute. Transfer the ham to a plate.

Generously butter the cut sides of each baguette and toast them on the griddle over moderate heat until they are lightly browned, for 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer the baguettes to a work surface and generously brush the cut sides with mustard. Layer the ham, pork, Swiss cheese and pickles on the baguette and close the sandwiches.

Generously brush the outside of the sandwiches with butter and set them on the griddle or press; if using a griddle, top the sandwiches with a large baking sheet and weigh it down with heavy cans or a cast-iron skillet. Cook the sandwiches over moderate heat until they're browned and crisp on the outside and the cheese is melted, for 3 minutes per side on a griddle or 3 minutes total in a press. Cut the cubanos in half and serve them hot.

Makes 6 servings.

Mojo-Marinated Pork Shoulder

Line cook and sidekick Martin (John Leguizamo) witnesses Carl's flameout in the kitchen and decides to join his idol's culinary road trip. While traveling to iconic food destinations across the southern United States, he helps master this recipe.

Preparation time: 3 hours, 15 minutes plus overnight marinating

34 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup lightly packed cilantro, finely chopped

1 tablespoons finely grated orange zest

34 cup fresh orange juice

12 cup fresh lime juice

14 cup lightly packed mint leaves, finely chopped

8 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoons minced oregano

2 teaspoons ground cumin

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

3 12 pounds boneless pork shoulder, in one piece

In a bowl, whisk together all of the ingredients except the salt, pepper and the pork. Whisk in 1 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Transfer the marinade to a large, resealable plastic bag and add the pork. Seal the bag and turn to coat; set the bag in a baking dish and refrigerate overnight.

Heat the oven to 425 degrees and set a rack over a rimmed baking sheet. Transfer the pork to a work surface; discard the marinade. Fold the pork under itself, into thirds if necessary, and tie with string to form a neat roll. Season all over with salt and pepper and set it on the rack.

Roast the pork for 30 minutes, until it is lightly browned. Reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees and roast for 1 hour and 30 minutes longer, until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center registers 160 degrees. Transfer the pork to a carving board and let it rest for 30 minutes. Discard the string before slicing across the grain.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Berries in Cream

Young but wise beyond his years, Percy (Emjay Amthony) adds a big spoonful of sweetness to the El Jefe food-truck menu. The road trip gives him a chance to finally spend quality time with Dad as they cook their way across the United States.

For the berries:

1 cup each raspberries, blackberries and blueberries

12 cup granulated sugar

Handful fresh mint leaves, julienned

2 tablespoons Grand Marnier

For the caramel dust:

Nonstick cooking spray, optional

2 cups granulated sugar

12 cup water

For the whipped cream:

1 cup heavy whipping cream

14 cup confectioners' sugar

To prepare the berries: In a large mixing bowl, sprinkle 12 cup of sugar over all of the berries and let them sit for an hour or so.

To prepare the caramel dust: Line a rimmed baking sheet with Silpat or coat it with nonstick cooking spray. Over medium heat, bring the sugar and water to a boil. Swirl it in the pan over high heat until the sugar is dissolved, then cook the mixture until it is a caramel color, being careful not to burn it. Do not stir. Pour the mixture onto the prepared baking sheet to cool. Break it up when it has hardened. Put it in a food processor and pulse until it is finely ground. Run through a sieve to make dust.

To prepare the whipped cream: Whip the cream to medium peaks with the confectioners' sugar.

To serve: Fold into the beries the mint and 2 tablespoons of Grand Marnier. Mix thoroughly.

Place the berries in a serving bowl, top with cream and dust with caramel dust.

Makes 2 servings.

Pasta Aglio e Olio

Salted water for cooking

1 pound dried spaghetti

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

12 large cloves garlic, cut into thin slivers

1 tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes

Sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 cup fresh parsley, minced

12 cup parmesan cheese, freshly grated, plus more for garnish

2 lemons, juiced

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and add the spaghetti, cooking until it is al dente, for 8 to 10 minutes. Drain.

Heat the olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and stir frequently until the garlic is golden brown. Add the red pepper flakes, salt and pepper.

Add the drained spaghetti directly to the pan. Toss until the spaghetti is thoroughly coated with the garlic oil.

Remove the pan from the heat, add the parsley and parmesan cheese, and toss well. Check for flavor and adjust the salt, if necessary. Squeeze lemon juice over the pasta to taste. Garnish with more parmesan.

Makes 4 servings.

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