Back in 2014, when Jon Favreau’s Chef released, filmmaker Raja Krishna Menon went to watch it one evening with two of his friends. Coming back home, they wanted to do all that the chef did in the movie, buy a food truck and everything. Listening to them talk, Raja’s son came and said, “You guys are talking like little kids who watched a superhero movie.” So three years later, when producer Vikram Malhotra asked if Raja would be interested to direct the Hindi adaptation of the film, he said yes and put Saif Ali Khan as his chef. After that he was not sure how he could adapt it. He had only worked on original screenplays before. And this was an official remake, the producers had got the rights. But then Raja sat with his writer mates Suresh Nair and Ritesh Shah and together found a way out.
Raja says, “We focus on the father-son relationship. Jon Favreau's Chef was more centred on food, ours is centred on the relationship. It is one of the least-discussed relationships, unlike mother and son or father and daughter.” Raja speaks to us in a phone interview, days before Chef is to release. More than a year after his last film Airlift, Raja decided to bring a good part of Chef to his home state, Kerala. “Half of it is shot in Kerala. I didn’t want to bring it out just as a song. I wanted Kerala as a character. It was time we shot a place close to my heart. Suresh and I are Malayalis, and Ritesh, we have given a Malayali tag,” he says with a laugh.
The crew was quite taken aback by the food and culture of Kerala. “Like our idiyappams,” Raja says. Then there is Padmapriya playing the Malayali ex-wife Radha Menon. “There are a lot of Malayali characters; there is a karnavar kind of character,” he adds. Saif was also the easiest decision for Raja. When Vikram asked ‘Who do you think can play Jon Favreau’s character?’, Raja immediately said Saif. “That was my gut reaction. Even though it will be a star presence, his is an approachable kind of stardom.” Saif had to do a one-and-a-half month training to learn cooking, at the Marriott kitchen. “He must have cut a hundred onions!” Raja laughs. Raja himself is a foodie, but he is yet to master cooking. He plans to try his hand at it after the film. It is a cathartic process, he says. He is also excited about the music of the film, done by Raghu Dixit.