It’s almost uncanny. Chef is a movie about a talented, emotional, veteran chef who rediscovers his joy—and what’s important to him—when he walks away from his job at a fancy restaurant and starts his own food truck serving simple, delicious street fare. It could have been based on the life of Mike Minor, a longtime Las Vegas chef who spent almost a decade running the kitchen at Mandalay Bay’s Border Grill before departing early this year to open Truck U Barbeque.
I took Minor to see Chef—and yes, the popcorn was on the Weekly—to find out if writer, director and star Jon Favreau’s efforts to capture kitchen life was on the mark. After all, Favreau recruited Roy Choi, founder of LA’s Kogi food trucks, as the lead culinary consultant on the film. Did he pull it off? We let Minor be the judge, and picked his brain after the flick.
So, did you like it? I loved it. It was inspiring.
The main character, chef Carl Casper, was a really sensitive guy. I always think of chefs as tough guys. We’re artists. We wear our hearts on our sleeves. You have to be a badass around your cooks and sous chefs, because if you’re not they’ll run all over you. If you’re not cool enough, they’re not gonna follow you. So you always have this facade, but when you’re sitting at your computer looking at Eater or at Yelp and you have a bad review or someone didn’t like something, that crushes you, believe me.
There’s a scene where the chef is doing just that, staying up all night reading negative Tweets about his cooking. Did that resonate? Oh yeah, for sure. When I started at Border Grill we had some bad reviews. I was in over my head. It took me a little while to get on my feet. I remember the general manager telling me not to look at the Internet, and I was like, ‘Why? I don’t care.’ But I’d read it and the rest of the day, I’d be a wreck.
Every part of that movie resonated, from buying the hooptie truck and fixing it up, having to do everything, and then at the end, having this badass truck.
What part of the movie struck the most emotional chord with you? Probably his family, how he had his son there with him.
Your food truck is also a family affair. I saw your mom riding shotgun on opening night. My mom has embarrassed me from the time I was 5 years old. It never stops. But that was great, and I have my sister on the truck, which is really great. But in the movie the chef realizes he has to pay attention to the things he was ignoring, and I was ignoring my wife. Working 14 hours a day at a restaurant took its toll on us. Now, through the food truck, we are learning each other all over again. That part of this experience is incredible. You don’t realize, in a restaurant, you’re always thinking, Me, me, me. I gotta be the best chef I can be, I have to make sure people see me. I forget I have this woman next to me, waiting for me to come home. So being together on the truck has been awesome.
What part of the film was not realistic? The part where he pulls up the truck in different cities and there’s this line down the street waiting for him—that’s not real. But I was looking for certain things, and they were there, like the bungee cord holding up his spice rack on the truck. That’s what guys like us do. You take a sharp corner in your food truck and you don’t want your spice rack to fall over. You don’t have that problem in a restaurant.
The movie chef fought with his boss, the restaurant owner, because he needed to cook his own food. Did you have similar struggles before you struck out on your own? It’s funny, in the first [confrontation] they had, I saw that from the owner’s side. But in the second conversation, the owner really turned into a dick, and it was my way or the highway. For me, it was a gradual, eventual thing. I had been wanting to do my own thing for a while, and finally someone told me I just had to commit. I really love the [owners of Border Grill], but it was time to do my own thing.
There are so many chefs and cooks in Las Vegas that are cooking someone else’s food, so to speak, maybe at celebrity chef restaurants. Are there different types of chefs, some who want to stay and some who want to go and do their own thing? There are definitely different types but a lot of guys are trapped by the benefits that come with being a chef in Las Vegas, benefits that far outweigh the pay. I haven’t paid for concert tickets in probably 10 years, and I could get restaurant reservations whenever and wherever I wanted. It’s a very sweet gig in a lot of ways. But I believe in the heart of those guys, we all want to be our own chefs. We all want to do our own thing. I guess I just fall into the category of being crazy enough to do it.
But now I feel like I have to keep my truck open and show all the other chefs ... it’s not about me. It’s about all those guys sitting in those casinos, super-mega-talented chefs, and somebody is telling them, “Don’t do it” or “You can’t do it.” I want to prove to them that you can be that guy; you don’t have to be stuck in a casino with no windows forever.
That Cuban food coming off the El Jefe truck in the movie looked really good. Man, I love Cuban sandwiches. And I love how that’s his one thing. Sometimes I think I make too many items on the menu. Maybe I should just be known for one item. All I make is this. I don’t know ... I love cooking and making a bunch of sh*t.
Please don’t stop making the pulled pork torta or the shortrib fries. Those are my favorites. Well, thank you, but I’ve really got the brisket down. You gotta have the brisket.