Jon Favreau and Roy Choi first met when the director was making Chef — Favreau needed an actual, you know, chef to consult on the movie’s food. Who better to give pointers for the fictional Carl Casper’s turn to food trucks than the guy who rose to fame with his moment-defining Kogi Korean BBQ food trucks? The two bonded and, tomorrow, they’ll debut a new cooking show, The Chef Show, on Netflix rooted in those experiences. The way the duo tell it, the show sounds like an excuse to hang out and cook together again — just all around the country, with some pretty awesome people. Grub talked to Favreau and Choi about their ideas behind the series, where it’ll take them, and Choi’s dive into food television.
Can you tell me more about how this show came about? Was it through working on Chef, and your subsequent friendship? Or did Netflix approach you?
Favreau: We met working on Chef, and after that I wanted to keep going. I didn’t want to do a sequel, though. I loved learning from Roy so much that I started just scheduling things around my travel. I think I was going to Atlanta to work on Spider-Man and Avengers, and I had Roy meet me. And we cooked at some restaurants there, and then we started cooking in my kitchen and his restaurants, and we just started gathering footage. Then I would work on the footage like a documentary.
So, we didn’t even have a shape until after we had done many of them and I figured, Why not a whole season? The marriage with Netflix happened much later in the game, after the episodes were already complete.
It sounds like more of a dinner-party show, just with two very famous people?
Favreau: It’s more “dinner party in the back of the house.” The fun part, where you’re all cooking together, peeling potatoes. There’s a little bit with us eating together, but far less. Roy will tell you.
Choi: It kind of goes back to the roots. There’s a lot of stuff, layers to the show, but at the core it’s just a straight-up cooking show. I don’t think we started that way. I don’t know what we wanted at the beginning. As Jon mentioned, we just turned on the camera.
Favreau: It’s like intermediate cooking lessons with a chef. I know my way around the kitchen, but there’s a lot I still want to learn.
Choi: Half the challenge for me is, well, some of the stuff we cook on the show I don’t cook every day. Like, you have those old cooking shows: “Okay, today’s recipe is pot-au-feu.” Or, “Today is spaghetti and meatballs.” I kind of show my way of cooking these foods, and hopefully that will be a lesson to viewers.
Is Jon the proxy for the audience?
Favreau: We’re like co-hosts, but we don’t look at the camera. We’re talking to each other. It is what it is, we’re in the kitchen with cameras, and we’ll bring other people too. So, we’re cooking at Robert Rodriguez’s house or at the Optimist in Atlanta for chef [Ford] Fry and his crew. It’s just that. There’s no artifice. You’re with us and it’s authentic and we trust the editorial process and the music and the cuts and rhythm of it to make it entertaining like a documentary.
So can you tell me more about the guests?
Favreau: Well, Robert Rodriguez — he’s a great cook. He’s got a pizza oven in his house in Austin, this beautiful home, and loves cooking. And I was like, “Boy, it would be great if while I was in Austin, visiting Aaron Franklin and working at his festival, if we could go and film at Robert’s house. And would he let us do that?” When we hang out, he’s constantly cooking and feeding. So, I wanted to really capture that. Plus he has great insight into the creative process from the film perspective, which is very similar to how chefs approach food.
And then there’s Aaron. I’ve learned from him and we filmed Chef [at Franklin Barbecue]. But to be able to go back after having smoked brisket for years on my own since meeting him, to show him how I do it and to get pointers from him — it’s really about going to study with the masters and get them to give you a diagnostic on what you’re doing. Also to talk to them and spend time with them.
It’s always been a bucket list, dream wish list of who to cook with. We cook with Gwyneth [Paltrow] over at Goop, or Bill Burr, who I had been bouncing back and forth with in our DMs because he was curious about cooking and asking me questions. I got to know him through that. To have him say how much he loved the food scenes in Chef and cook a Cubano and grilled cheese sandwich with us was just a different perspective on a guy you know as an edgy comic. But really he’s a softy and a family man who loves cooking for family and friends.
One guest who sticks out to me is Jazz Singsanong of Jitlada. She’s such a character, but not as well known.
Choi: She’s amazing.
Favreau: When we were cooking, I was like, “How is this going to be an episode?” She was just ripping through four recipes. I felt like I was working in her kitchen, like somebody didn’t show up and I was filling in. Then you look at the footage and she’s so compelling. It was all framed around Jonathan Gold because we also had Evan Kleiman, and Roy, and people who were very influenced by him. Talking about him, about how they fed him, and the pies for the pie contest Evan would do with Jonathan. We actually cooked a peach pie —
Choi: It was actually a peach galette —
Favreau: A peach galette. And how the stories would come out of cooking, and it felt kind of like a tribute. It was filmed not long after he passed. It felt like a really nice, authentic experience. In addition to getting to be there alongside someone who is a master of Thai cooking, it ended up being a really profound episode, and it plays really well. Even if people don’t know who those people are. It might be, if not my favorite, one of my favorite episodes.
Choi: I think so. Yeah, there are so many gems in there.
Is it all on location, or do you go around the city?
Favreau: Yeah, it’s usually around a place to eat or cook. But it’s not like a travelogue. Either we’re going to a farm or a restaurant or we’re doing family meal for staff at a restaurant. Cooking for other chefs, then the chefs cook for us. I really wanted to emulate what it was like when I traveled with Roy. It’s really different than when you travel as a “VIP” with a film crew. You go in there, you’re in the kitchen, you’re tasting the food backstage, you’re never ordering anything. They’re trying to impress you peer to peer. It’s not soigné presentation that will impress you with things that make you feel refined. It’s a comic playing to a comic. They’re presenting a different repertoire.
To me, there was something really cool about being by Roy’s side, for example, as Emeril [Lagasse] cooks for us in New Orleans. It’s a meal I’ll never forget. I’ve been treated well in restaurants and I appreciate it, but there’s something so fun watching them talk about technique and ingredients. I wanted to capture that.
Roy, between this and Broken Bread, how are you handling diving into TV?
Choi: It just happened that everything came out this year. But, I’m ready man. I’m ready, man. I’ve been a shy kid for almost four decades now of my life. And I’m ready for the second chapter of my life. I’ve got a lot to share with the world. I just didn’t know how I could share it. It just all came together in one year, and I’m not going to shy away from it anymore.
Has it helped you learn how to do that?
Choi: Obviously with Jon, this show has been three years in filming. If you include Chef, that’s five or six years of him exposing me to the entertainment world.
Along those lines, after Kogi I got approached by everyone under the sun to make a show and it just wasn’t the right time. But it’s something that’s been brewing — it’s like kimchee. It garments. Now I’m ready to eat.
Kogi came out 11 years ago. It was a phenomenon, and when something is a phenomenon everyone needs to honey on that. I got pitched a lot and asked to pitch shows. In hindsight, I wasn’t ready. I’m glad some of those shows didn’t get picked up. It took that long to figure out what I wanted to say on a social level, with Broken Bread, and then now as a chef with The Chef Show.
Anything else about the show?
Favreau: I think it’s very specific to an audience that appreciates what’s interesting to us. It wasn’t something that was programmed. It’s more we did something we felt great about.
I’ve watched all these episodes a dozen times in the process of making and defining the show. Every little thing, a lot of care went into it. The animation, the way we talk, there’s recipes in it, the way the food is filmed. It’s just incredibly personal and something we both like a lot. It’s just really nice to share. It’s like you cooked a meal you want to eat, and now you’ve invited people. It’s mind-boggling to me that there’ll be someone sitting on the opposite end of the world watching the most personal, specific story. I’m really interested to see who connects to it because if they do, there’s nothing else like it that they’ll find about people in L.A. cooking and talking about Korean food. It’s such a specific thing about what Roy and I geek out about.
Hopefully, there’s some humanity and personalness. And then people who like to cook and want to just go and show people who cook for real, and not try to present it any other way. And what it’s like to be there by the side of someone who is really great at what they do and learning from them. I wanted to show what that was like.
Choi: It’s really honest and tender. It’s really funny too.