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Food Bytes MUST RUN

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By April MacIntyre
No one obsesses about food like crew. And with food trends like Atkins, South Beach and all the other diet disciplines, there’s plenty to obsess about. A production’s overall success can usually be measured by the satisfaction the crew has with craft service and caterer performance, and attention to details.
In my ideal world, fruit trays are perfectly cut. Fresh-snipped dill and shaved European hothouse cucumbers decorate the dip bowl. Vegetable trays defy gravity. The hummus made from scratch with Meyer lemon juice in the portable Cuisinart glistens with extra virgin olive oil and a smattering of paprika. The pita chips are crisp and arranged upright. The carpaccio is shaved to perfection and flecks of black pepper and capers hug the meat. Vanilla yogurt parfaits are dissected in their cups with sliced red strawberries and crowned with plump golden framboises and a dusting of ground almonds, toasted oats and brown sugar. Gary, my craft service boss, nods with approval. “You’re a natural.”
I repeat, no one obsesses about food like crew; obsessions that lurk in the minds of people arriving on set in the dark of morning, and who leave in the dark of night. Diet trends like pure vegans, lacto-ovo vegetarians, raw food only, Atkins devotees and South Beach compromisers have complicated the game. And now you find caterers carefully segregating the usual bowls of chips, pretzels and M&Ms from the more costly high-protein fare, like whole cashews and organic high-fat cheeses.
This is Hollywood, so count on customized catered meals depending on the current dietary adherence the producers and talent are following at any given moment. Obscure food items grace many craft service tables, like seaweed-covered peanuts and root bark tea from South America.
Despite their diets, many people secretly look forward to working on set as a secret furlough into the hedonistic land of the epicurians: a decadent, edible one-night stand filled with day-after regrets and self-admonishments. You will witness seemingly normal people eating sour cream and onion potato chips, sesame coated cashews, peanut butter malted milk balls and teriyaki beef jerky before sunrise. “I never eat like this, really,” they say.
When I asked Leonard Maltin at the 2003 DVD Awards which below-the-line position added the most value to a good production, he did not hesitate. “Craft services, that’s what it’s all about.” He recalled passionately the dismal pickings at the craft service table of a recent big-budget feature in production that he was visiting, but wouldn’t name names. A production’s morale can be accurately gauged by the satisfaction cast and crew has with the craft service and caterer, so the larger purpose, like making a movie, can be accomplished.
I have seen a crew work together in unison, collectively bitching to the line producer to dispatch a craft service guy who was on his cell phone with his girlfriend nonstop, putting not enough effort into his feeble spread: bowls carelessly filled with condiments like mayonnaise slowly turning translucent. He was gone by lunch.
Breakfasts are a big to-do, confirmed by a well-known caterer on the Universal backlot. I asked which meal was most important to get right. “All of them of course, but breakfast sets the tone for the day.”
He shared a story with me about a trio of Samoan brothers who were grips. Between them, they managed to polish off 20 eggs, two pounds of bacon, and four cans of sliced and fried Spam, which they referred to as “special ham”—apparently a prized delicacy in the South Pacific. Danish and bagels rounded it out.
Gordon Willis, ASC, veteran cinematographer, provides his perspective: “I could never take the grip food,” he says. “You know, the heavy stuff, roast beef and mashed potatoes, especially when it was 100 degrees outside. Where’s a nice salad or something like that? But, I have to admit, the Hollywood caterers really were the best.”
He talked about the scene he shot in the first Godfather, how the heat made the stench from the real horse head “gamey,” even though it had been stored on ice between takes. I lost my appetite for the rest of the day.
There are tricks that crafties and caterers use to keep the really good food hidden from the nonessential people for the intended consumption of the producers and the crew. Woe to the inexperienced craft service attendant who works on a shoot that allows extras hovering around the table to double dip and eat everything up in the day’s food arsenal. A lesson to learn quickly is artful illusion: While making the ordinary fare look delicious and presentable, you stow the good stuff until a break in the shoot. The crew has a limited amount of grazing time between takes, and the successful working professionals know that “showtime” is really for them.

Excerpted from You’ll Never Eat Lunch at the Catering Truck Again®. April MacIntyre is a writer for Below the Line, NPR commentator, and is repulsed by all forms of mayonnaise. She would like to remind Brian Grazer she is still waiting for his call. [email protected]

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