In Jon Favreau’s Chef (2014), Carl Casper astounds his staff by cooking carne asada, a Latin American beef delicacy, in masterly fashion.
In the trailer of Raja Menon’s official Hindi adaptation of the Hollywood movie, Michelin star chef Roshan Kalra (Saif Ali Khan) is equally nifty with knives and choppers, but is more worried over his tense relationship with his son. Also called Chef, the movie will be released on October 6.
“Chef is not a food film, but a relationship film with a lot of food,” Menon said. “Favreau’s film was a complete food film. We went down the other road. For us, food is the glue in a film about relationships, at a time when most of our relationships are built around food.”
Roshan is a high-flying chef who moves in with his ex-wife Radha (Padmapriya) to repair his troubled relationship with his son Ari (Svar Kamble). Favreau played the lead role in the original, and was paired with Sofia Vergara.
“I kind of like films that cater to the upwardly mobile city middle class audience because I think it is a really exciting space,” Khan added. “It is the space which is developing in terms of how we are thinking and how our values are changing. The biggest change is in that area. Chef is a modern take on relationships.”
When Vikram Malhotra, one of the producers, approached Menon with the idea, even before agreeing to do the film, he knew that Khan would be his natural choice for the role. “Saif has a very interesting vulnerability, which is rare to see among stars,” Menon said. “And the character he is playing is really torn up inside.”
Khan first donned the chef’s hat for Salaam Namaste (2004), but he barely remembers playing one. “I don’t remember cooking in the film,” Khan said. “The two films are about as different as was the economy then and now because that’s how our films change. Films like Salaam Namaste are great fun, but they are more musical. They are more about good-looking people being cool in situations, and there was a time for that. But there is much more realism in these movies. You cannot compare this chef to that chef.”
The original movie covered a range of international cuisines. The Indian adaptation is, naturally, more localised. “We travel from Kerala to Amritsar to New York,” Menon said. “You can make the simplest food, but the pleasure of feeding is the ultimate point that you reach. It is not stardom or the 3 Michelin stars.” Khan concurred, calling the Indian variant to be much more amusing. “Food is a great metaphor because the kind of food you eat is also who you are, be it pizza and Diet Coke or pasta and wine,” he said.
In Favreau’s production, Carl Casper rediscovers his love for Cuban cuisine and decides to serve Cuban sandwiches and yuca fries on his food truck. Kalra will be seen whipping up the “rotzza”, or roadside pizza. “The rotzza is what Roshan invents out of kitchen leftovers for his son, to make friends with him after a fight,” Khan said. “It is symbolic of a father’s apology to a son. And when they are deciding the menu, the kid suggests bringing it in.”
The team went through numerous options, including bao, before settling on the Indianised pizza. “The biggest problem that you have with shooting food is that you don’t have smell in cinema,” Menon said. “So how do I make you smell the food? The bao worked very well for us because there is steam when you cook it and the olfactory senses start kicking in. We wanted frying and the sizzle. Also the idea also was that you should be able to make it in your kitchen. It is the emotion of the food, not the food itself.”
The makers also made sure that all the food bits were authentic to the bone. “I am a bit of a stickler for getting things right,” Menon said. “Even for Airlift, it was important for me to get every single element of the tank right. Similarly, it had to be the right food and it had to be made correctly. Saif had to look like he was really a chef. So we basically set up kitchens and got a bunch of local people to come in and help with the food.”
Khan too went through training at the Marriott Kitchen to learn cooking tricks. “I have had to cook for hours where I made pasta from scratch,” Khan said. “These are small things, but are very important. When you see it, you believe that this guy can cook and this guy belongs to a kitchen. You have to look comfortable with fire and food and Raja is very meticulous that way.”
Khan has a range of interesting roles on offer after Chef, including the movies Kaalakaandi and Baazaar and the Netflix series Sacred Games . “Kaalakandi is one of the best films I have been in,” Khan said. “It is about this really boring man who gets diagnosed with cancer. So he drops some acid and has the adventure of a lifetime in one night. And in Baazar, I play a Gujarati businessman who is ruthless and strong. If I am already stuck doing commercial movies on a different, slightly larger level, I think I would have lost out as a person and as an artist. I am lucky I have got these guys. Now something better run.”