‘The Chef Show’: My rediscovery and learning of food

Wednesday, March 18, 2020 - 3:19pm

I find it hard to avoid burnout when it comes to my own passions and hobbies. Food is one of those passions that fell to the burnout. I continuously worked in the kitchen during my academic career; handling, creating and consuming food were the highlights of my day in light of the drudgery of exams and projects compounded by the existential dread of “planning for my future.” 

Releasing a fillet of fish from its backbone with one smooth glide of your deba knife. Furiously mincing your vegetables into 1/16 inch cuts of brunoise mirepoix that yield a silent nod of approval from the chef de cuisine. Gingerly retrieving an egg-white raft of protein scum that threatens to destroy your baby of the evening — a pristine, transparent lobster consomme. One by one, these tasks lose their vibrancy and their appeal, reverting back to a similar drudgery of tasks not unlike academic work. 

Cue the year 2014. Fresh from producing and directing the litany of Marvel films, such as “The Avengers” and the “Iron Man” series, director/actor Jon Favreau (“The Mandalorian”) writes, directs, co-produces and stars in “Chef” — a low-budget film meant to parallel his own experiences within the film industry. His co-producer Roy Choi, founder of the Kogi taco trucks, initially serves as Favreau’s chef consultant — though Choi eventually is given creative freedom over all culinary aspects and technical details within the movie. When it was released, both critics and general audiences enjoyed the film. However, Favreau and Choi’s budding partnership seemed to reach its denouement after the conclusion of the film’s production.

Perhaps it’s Choi’s insistence to properly showcase the life of a cook in “Chef” that resonates with my own doldrum experiences of food and the kitchen. Favreau’s character, Carl Casper, finds his own calling within food after years of being trapped by repeatedly cooking tired, outdated cuisine. Though somewhat similar to my experiences, I found the film almost invigorating, though I dismissed it all the same as some fantasization of the kitchen experience at large. 

But five years later, Favreau and Choi teamed up for their spin-off show called “The Chef Show,” which Netflix describes as an outlet of recipe experimentation between the master and apprentice as they also collaborate with celebrities within the entertainment and culinary worlds. While the episodes match the theme of the movie, they are far more informal in tone; at separate points, Favreau and Choi both confirm that “The Chef Show” represents the continuation and maturation of the friendship that had stagnated after they had completed “Chef.” In other words, “The Chef Show” is the spiritual successor to “Chef” happening within the world — not some other idyllic movie fantasy.

But in spite of the many celebrities featured within each episode — ranging from movie stars including Robert Downey Jr. (“Dolittle”) or Tom Holland (“Onward”) to culinary heavyweights like Wolfgang Puck, Aaron Franklin and David Chang — “The Chef Show” focuses deeply on the relationship between Favreau and Choi. In particular, Favreau’s passion and eagerness to learn culinary skills and traditions fuels Choi’s (and other chefs’) respect and thus fuels their friendship. At other times, Choi’s pensive but engaged demeanor in learning about Favreau’s (and other actors and filmmakers’) struggles provides an additional depth of respect and friendship as Choi quietly arranges the mise en place. 

But “The Chef Show” doesn’t focus only on the relationship between Favreau and Choi. As highlighted as Favreau and Choi’s star-crossed friendship might be, it’s the expanded individual stories of the two that gives their friendship meaning. Favreau’s recounting of his claim to fame through the Marvel Cinematic Universe provides with the same conclusion as Choi’s recounting of his exploding popularity through the Kogi trucks. Both drew acclaim through hard work in uncharted territory — which were the great uncertainties and instabilities of the MCU and food trucks within 2008. Hard work and talent acknowledges hard work and talent — which provides much of the impetus and spiritual pathos of “The Chef Show.”  

And it’s Favreau and Choi’s treatment of food culture — one that is based on learning new knowledge and techniques and subsequently passing those to another — that replaced my own burn-out of food and cooking with a reignited hunger to consume and learn. “Chef” couldn’t inspire me out of my stupor and cynicism, perhaps because of my reductive attitudes towards fictional narratives as “inauthentic.” But with Favreau and Choi’s adventures in “The Chef Show,” there is nowhere to hide and no reasons to make excuses. Favreau and Choi’s joy in learning from each other’s company — and those around them — captivated me. I too would like to imitate that way of living.

A cook at the Atlanta restaurant Holeman and Finch expressed gratitude towards Favreau and Choi in the second episode of the first season of “The Chef Show.” The reason for this gratitude, he articulated, is because watching the movie “Chef” had reignited his own passions towards cooking for others in the restaurant industry. “Chef” didn’t have that same impact for me — perhaps only melting my abandoned ideals towards food into a lukewarm attitude of apathy. But it’s “The Chef Show” that reignited my passions for food. It has taken its own new form: learning about and engaging with others’ experiences through eating and passing on that knowledge through the written word.