When it comes to food, actor John Leguizamo considers himself a pretty adventurous guy. It’s easy to be when you live in New York City and can order in just about anything you want from any country in the world.
“New York is the mecca of ordering out,” Leguizamo, 49, told me at the South by Southwest Film Festival this past March where he was promoting his new indie film ‘Chef,’ directed and written by and starring Jon Favreau. “You can order Latin, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Ethiopian, Afghani, Jamaican. It’s all great. It’s all quick. It’s ridiculous.”
Food plays a major role in ‘Chef’ where Leguizamo portrays a line cook named Martin who helps a down-on-his-luck chef (Favreau) start a food truck business after he loses his position at a trendy restaurant.
During our interview, Leguizamo and I talked about how he handles himself in the kitchen and how he thinks Favreau did behind the camera of an indie film after making blockbuster-type movies over the last few years.
How are you in the kitchen? Are you a good cook?
I’m not a bad cook. I’m a functional, common sense kind of cook. I can do the basics. I can make a burger. I can definitely make coffee; nice, simple stuff. I do one great dish, which is a Latin roasted chicken. That’s my secret weapon. My wife loves that.
Did ‘Chef’ make you a better cook?
This movie definitely taught me how to cook a lot better. I have mad respect for chefs now. You can’t get those kind of results in the kitchen without a few years of training. You have to know how to cook meat to the exact, perfect temperature. All that stuff is precise, man. I worked in a lot of kitchens to prepare for this. What I loved about it was the respect and camaraderie [the kitchen staff] has for each other. These chefs have mad respect for their crew, which is mostly Latino. They even said, “No one works as hard and is as loyal as my Latino cooks.” It was a beautiful relationship.
That’s not what we see on reality TV cooking shows. You always see the hard-nosed chef yelling at his staff. That doesn’t seem to be true at all in your experience.
Well, I mean, there are always yellers. There are directors, producers, actors who are yellers. So, there are also chefs who are yellers. But a lot of them aren’t. When you work with [directors] Baz Luhrmann or Jon Favreau, they don’t yell. They don’t get angry. They just ask more of you, but they do it in more of a coach-like way. I mean, there are coaches that are yellers, so I guess it just all depends.
Who have you worked with that is a yeller?
I’ve worked with a lot of yellers.
I mean, being a yeller doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Some coaches who yell also inspire their players.
Yeah, but I’m not going to name names. (Laughs) I don’t think they want to see themselves in that light.
What cuisine do you resonate with the most, especially since your Latino ethnic background is so varied?
Oh, I love Puerto Rican food. But I love all Latin food, whether it’s Dominican or Puerto Rican. It’s my soul food. I really love world food. I love Ethiopian food, man. You eat it with your fingers. You get sourdough pancakes. It’s like Indian food, but not a greasy. I love Indian food, too, man.
With ‘Chef,’ director Jon Favreau is returning to a more independent film like he directed in 2001 with ‘Made.’ This is far from the giant tent-pole projects he’s done in the past few years like the first two ‘Iron Man’ movies and ‘Cowboys & Aliens.’ How do you think he did on set going back to a more intimate film?
I think the budget [on ‘Chef’] was big enough for him to play with. All the money went into the production. None of it went into the actors’ pockets. (Laughs) But, yeah, he did a fantastic job. He’s used to the big budgets, but he still knows how to operate a smaller one. A lot of directors lose that ability because they’re so used to having everything they want. When it’s a smaller movie, you don’t have those opportunities all the time.
Is that easy for you to do as an actor – go from something as grand in scale as, say, ‘Moulin Rouge!’ to a smaller film like ‘Empire?’
You know, you forget. I just went and did a whole bunch of smaller films and you forget how many pages of dialogue you have to do a day. You really have to be prepared for the smaller movies because there is no time for overtime. You have to get the coverage when you’re there. You have to work a lot harder on an independent film, but you’re never bored.
Something we see in the film is how much the food-truck industry has blown up in the past few years. If you ever go to a food truck to eat, do you go for the quick and easy stuff or are you the kind of guy that only wants food from the gourmet food trucks?
I like more of the fun stuff in a food truck. If I want fancy, I’ll go to a restaurant. (Laughs) My son and I always go eat these Swedish waffles that have speculaas and all these amazing toppings on it.
Well, in New York City, you’ve always had hotdog carts, but now they have gourmet hotdog vendors that are piling on more than just sauerkraut and mustard on their hotdogs. It’s easy to pay $12 for a hotdog now.
Oh, yeah. They have every kind of food truck in New York now. They have coffee trucks and Mexican food trucks. In New York you can always do international because you have everyone there from every part of the world.
What about shady food trucks? Are you brave enough to try food from a food truck that has a little less upkeep than the average one? I mean, it might look a little unsanitary, but the cooks are really working hard in the back.
Uhhhhh. (Laughs) I gotta be told [a food truck] is good. If I don’t hear about it, if there’s no word of mouth, I’m not going. I’m not adventurous like that. I mean, I’m adventurous with the type of food, but I’m not adventurous with the quality of food.