John Wells lavishes tender loving care on his latest film ‘Burnt’ in which Bradley Cooper trades in his American Sniper’s combat jacket and helmet for a chef’s hat and pristine white apron. In the film, he plays Adam Jones, the two-star Michelin, behind-the-stove rock star but also bad boy of Paris’ gourmet restaurant scene who ends up wallowing in alcohol and drug abuse. Years later, the roguish chef wants to scale the heights of the profession again and slay his old demons once and for all.
I read somewhere that until age 8, you couldn’t decide whether to become an actor or a chef in a Michelin-starred restaurant. Did playing one in ‘Burnt’ and experiencing life in the kitchens make you wish you had chosen a career as a chef?
You know, when I was a kid, I wanted to do all sorts of things! I wanted to be a ninja, then a cowboy and a soldier… Acting and becoming a chef were just some of them. I think they were all possibilities but I wasn’t sure of anything. There were just of things I dreamt of doing!
Was cooking important in the Cooper household?
Oh yes! Don’t forget, my Mum is Italian so as you can imagine, the kitchen was the most important room in the house! I can even say that everything revolved around the kitchen! In my mother’s family, all everyone talked about was eating – from what time we were going to sit down to eat to what was going to be served, the size of the piece of beef and the way it was going to be cooked! And above all, what was going to be served with it.
But how about you Brad, do you like cooking?
I’ve always liked cooking and I was doing some nice home cooking way before this film! Until the age of 15, I used to clear tables in restaurants to earn some pocket money. I also know how a kitchen brigade works and how professional and hard-working they have to be. To keep their three stars, believe me, they have to put in a lot of effort. It’s a bit like playing in the finals of a tennis championship every day of the week. I have always felt huge admiration for sommeliers. Even if you have a good nose and can single out a wine amongst hundreds of others, you still have to be able to sell it to your customers.
So how about your own personal tastes, Brad?
I absolutely love France. I lived in the South when I was younger, so I know a bit about your values and your wine regions.
If you had to prepare one of your specialities right now, what would it be?
Sautéed calamari with scallops and prawns, served with pan-fried tomatoes and a little dry white wine from the Rhone Valley, for instance. To my mind, that is the ultimate pairing!
Which chef inspired you so that all the ingredients would come together on screen?
John Wells and I wanted to be credible, to look convincing and genuine in the kitchen. So we watched quite a few British documentaries, particularly a programme called ‘Boiling Point’; the chef we watched was Gordon Ramsey. Other chefs advised us actually on the set. The whole thing was run like a real kitchen. We didn’t want to pretend. So we all pretty much got burnt, cut and knocked about! We put ourselves under a lot of pressure.
What did you learn from being around chefs?
Marco Pierre White, the English chef who briefed me, told me that you always had to be on the move when you were creating a dish. You find inspiration by moving your hands and looking around. Also, never underestimate wine. Whether you’re using it in sauces, to add flavour or serve at the table: the choice of wine is essential.
If I were to sneak into Bradley Cooper’s kitchen during the night, what would I find in his fridge?
Right now, you’d find calamari, prawns, orange juice, green vegetable juice and celery. Shall I continue?
No, it’s okay. It was just to make sure you do your shopping yourself!
You lived in France when you were younger. Why is it, do you think, that the chefs there think of themselves as the best in the world?
You know, on that particular issue, I am prepared to launch into a discussion. Take Marco Pierre White for instance. He was the youngest three-star Michelin chef - he has never worked in France and has never studied French cuisine. I would add that young chefs move to London to have a successful career.
Interview by Frank Rousseau, our correspondent in the United States