Lights, Camera - Cooking!

For a Hollywood caterer, serving a cast of thousands is a major production

WHAT does it take to make a hit movie? A good cast, a good budget, a good script, a good crew ... and good food. Meals for movie makers are catered. And here in the motion-picture capital of the world, it follows that catering on sets or on location is big business.

``It's like feeding astronauts,'' says Douglas Axtell, a sound mixer based here who has worked on many movies. ``If you're at the same location and eating the same food, you get tired of even good food,'' he says.

A movie caterer's job isn't easy. Long days (typically 13 to 16 hours). Loads of people (hundreds, usually - sometimes thousands). The same customers day after day (shooting may last 10 weeks or more). Out-of-the-way locations (it was so cold in Billings, Mont., during the shooting of ``Little Big Man'' that the propane lines to the stoves froze up).

Of the 60 or 70 companies that ``cater to the stars,'' Michelson Food Services is the largest and oldest, and widely considered one of the best. Recent films to their credit include ``Green Card'' and ``Kindergarten Cop.''

Sometimes they provide just lunch, other times breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. Union regulations (cast and crew must break for food every six hours or producers pay a ``meal penalty'') and being on location necessitate having a food service.

Today, vice president Steve Michelson escorts a writer and photographer to one of the motion picture ``feeds.'' The location is a warehouse in Valencia, about an hour outside of Los Angeles. The movie is ``The Doctor,'' with William Hurt, Christine Lahti, Elizabeth Perkins, and Mandy Patinkin, to be released by Touchstone Pictures this fall.

In the parking lot, a line of crew members and actors inches its way past a truck-cum-kitchen, where two chefs busily serve today's hot meal: roast turkey with gravy and dressing, charbroiled chopped sirloin steak with onion and mushroom gravy, grilled Cajun catfish, mashed potatoes, brown rice, candied sweet yams, stuffed papaya with banana squash, steamed fresh vegetables, and peas. The meal was cooked in the truck ``from scratch'' - enough for 200 people.

Set up inside the warehouse are tables and chairs. But that's not all. Behold a monstrous cold buffet, lavishly decorated, featuring a large salad bar, rolls and butter, soup, a fruit bar (with hot chocolate mousse for dipping), various pies, ice cream with toppings, and beverages.

``We're well-fed,'' says Ginger Valdez, an extra who insists on being called by her stage name, ``The Hot Tamale.'' ``I stay fat for free,'' she says.

``You outdid yourself again,'' says another extra, nodding to Mr. Michelson and lumbering by with a heaping plate of food.

``Too much'' is a common sentiment here: Eating lunch can be like attending a wedding reception day after day. Some say they don't eat dinner.

``This is the way the producer tells the crew: `We love you. You give us the best and we'll give you the best,''' says Michelson. He estimates that today's meal cost the film company about $12 a plate plus labor, or about $18 altogether. That's the average price, he says. A typical movie's food budget is $10,000 a week for 10 weeks.)

``There's a direct correlation between the quality of the food and the enthusiasm of the crew,'' says Edward Feldman, executive producer for ``The Doctor'' (his credits include ``Green Card'' and ``Witness''). If the producer does nothing else but get the food and the payroll out, he's done his job, says Mr. Feldman.

To keep the show rolling, Michelson's offers ``theme days'' that focus on, say, design-your-own omelets, sushi, pasta, or potato; Belgian waffle bars; a soda fountain (milkshakes, floats, malts). Competition in the industry is tough, he says: ``We're constantly changing.''

Nearly 20 percent of the crew goes directly to the salad bar, Michelson estimates. Years ago, ``salad'' meant cottage cheese, lettuce, and Jell-O. Fish used to be served only on Fridays (always battered and grilled); now they serve fish all the time, all different ways. Many more actors now consider themselves vegetarians - Kevin Bacon, Dennis Weaver, Lindsay Wagner - while still others adhere to very strict diets, he says, mentioning Albert Brooks, Steve Martin, and Richard Dreyfuss. During the filming of ``Cocktail,'' ``we had to send cases and cases of Evian water down to Jamaica'' for Tom Cruise, says Michelson.

On location, they cater with regional specialties. When they shot ``On Golden Pond'' in New England, they had lobster and clambakes. ``In New Mexico, we do Tex-Mex a lot,'' says Michelson. In Jamaica, fresh fish.

Why hire a Hollywood caterer for a location like Jamaica?

Movie caterers are reliable, flexible, and know what to expect, says Michelson. They ``understand the idiosyncrasies of film crews, and roll with the punches they throw at you,'' he says.

Locations might shift 20 miles three times between breakfast and lunch. Times change. ``You've got to pick up and still be ready with fresh, hot food.'' Counts change: ``They might say 125 people, but 175 show up because they forgot that the mayor and his entourage are visiting,'' says Michelson. ``The only sure thing is there is no sure thing.''

Rolling with production punches can put chefs in the pressure cooker. But chefs like Chef Luis Lara here are pros. ``He's the cr`eme de la cr`eme,'' says associate producer Mike Glick, to which Mr. Lara replies: ``Holy macaroni!''

Originally from Nicaragua, Chef Lara has been with Michelson's for 13 years and, when prompted, will talk about the stars: Charlton Heston gets in line with everyone else. Chevy Chase is a regular kind of guy who introduces himself and offers to help out. Dan Ackroyd is quite nice.

In addition to the enormous responsibilities of ordering, preparing, cooking, and keeping people happy, Lara's job is to blend in with the crew.

``We spend more time with these people than with our own families.'' In a way, we keep everyone happy, he says: ``We're their entertainment.''

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