Sydney Morning Herald
Tuesday March 2, 2010
Catering for film crews is a challenging job, writes Caroline Baum. Once a film is cast and the funding is in place, who does the producer hire first? According to production manager Michelle Russell, it's the caterer. "If the food is good you have a happy shoot, no matter how harrowing the subject or the conditions," says Russell, whose credits include Paradise Road (a film about famished female concentration camp inmates) and Romulus, My Father (another tortured subject). "The only time I had a bad caterer I had to sack him because the crew threatened to walk."Sometimes she casts the caterer according to the subject of the film. "I chose someone with a reputation for light food on Paradise Road because the women had to lose weight during the course of the shoot," says Russell, who is now working on Beneath Hill Sixty, an Australian World War I film to be released this year.Regarded by many as the doyenne of movie caterers, Kerry Fetzer has been in the business for 20 years. A forthright New Zealander, the former maitre d' and masseuse with a no-nonsense approach has catered for the cast and crew of many of the biggest productions shot in Australia, including Superman, the Matrix films, Star Wars, Mission Impossible II and Australia."I like the logistical hurdles of a situation where you might have 300 cast on the 16th floor of one city building and 300 crew in Martin Place and have to feed them both simultaneously," says Fetzer, referring to a particularly memorable day on the shoot of Superman Returns.Film crews are a notoriously hungry mob, used to early starts, long hours and physically demanding days. They expect their food to be varied, plentiful and always ready when the director shouts "Cut!""You can't keep them waiting," Fetzer says. She refuses to use bain-maries to keep dishes warm. "They don't send out a good message," she says. "I prefer to have my team run out with fresh platters than have food sitting there sweating. That just makes you look like a bad hotel."With an average budget of about $35 a head, she is expected to provide a full cooked breakfast, three-course lunch with several options and an end-of-the-day snack. "The money is never the starting point," she says. "For me, it starts with the season. That determines what I'm going to serve but of course it also represents the best value. Then I like to think of themes. My next one is going to be Javanese food. At the moment Brazilian and Argentinian are big. But you have to be adaptable. If it's a warm day and you were thinking of sashimi and it suddenly hails, you have to be prepared to turn that into a cooked salmon dish."Weather is her most unpredictable enemy. "You try making pastry for 500 in a dust storm," she says darkly.In the early days she made a few mistakes. "I did creme caramel once but quickly discovered that if you drove it up a hill to some canteen they'd set up in the bush, it turned into scrambled egg. Still tasted delicious but looked awful."When it comes to stars and their eating habits she's seen it all: "On Australia, Nicole [Kidman] ate six lettuce leaves and no dressing. Or she'd request 20 cooked egg whites. She just doesn't eat. On Red Planet, Val Kilmer ate so many chicken breasts we joked that soon instead of shaving he'd be plucking!"Her worst experience of movie madness was with American director Bryan Singer. Singer reportedly banned Fetzer from using black pepper at any time throughout the Superman shoot. "I think he had irritable bowel and it set him off," she says, savouring her mischievous indiscretion. Memories of happier catering moments include chatting with Anthony Hopkins while making him scrambled eggs and a lavish crew party thrown by Marlon Brando.Americans, says Fetzer, are far more conservative in terms of food but also expect to eat a lot more. "On top of the regular meals, they expect a constant supply of smoothies, toasted sandwiches and snacks, which locals don't. They are alarmed by chilli, garlic, eggplant and fish because they are scared of bones. They eat a lot more meat, though they don't often recognise what it is: I've had American cast and crew look at beef and think it's chicken. And their actors are all totally fat-phobic, although they make an exception for melted cheese." (Another caterer said that on a recent American production he had to accommodate 38 diets.)Fetzer confesses that at times she has defied producers' instructions out of sympathy. "On Matrix, Keanu Reeves was forbidden to eat any fat or salt whatsoever. They had a separate caterer for him and his co-star, Carrie-Ann Moss. But he'd sneak away from his minder and look longingly at the hotcakes I was making. I couldn't refuse him, could I?"Operating her company, Love At First Bite, out of two long catering trucks, Fetzer often provides meals for 500 people in remote desert locations. "If local suppliers let me down I usually have enough on board to improvise," she says, citing the Adelaide markets as her favourite source of quality produce and Coober Pedy as one of the country's most difficult locations. In Sydney, where she is based at Fox Studios, her suppliers include Claudios for seafood and Handler meat wholesalers.While Australian shoots last anywhere from five to eight weeks on low to medium budgets, American shoots can be much longer, presenting special challenges. "You have to be able to balance out the menus to provide a mix that represents both restaurant food and home cooking," she says.She says the most popular dishes crew request are often the simplest. "Mashed potato, chicken soup, corned beef, anything deep fried - even in 40-degree heat - or chocolate bread and butter pudding." She's noticed the lighting and sound department are usually first in the queue and have the biggest appetites.Robert Jang, who trained with Fetzer, started Eat and Shoot Through in 1987. Born into a Chinese migrant foodie family (his father makes and supplies noodles for Neil Perry and Kylie Kwong, who is also a relative), he's made a niche for himself catering to Bollywood productions shot here.Armed with a set of thali plates, he often gets through a kilogram of chillies a day and has grown accustomed to the idiosyncrasies of the Indian film industry. "Their stars are like gods - they turn up whenever they want, there is no schedule so they expect to eat whenever they like," he says.Equipped with a giant wok in his catering truck, Jang can rustle up something on demand from a repertoire of Chinese, Thai and Indian dishes. Chilli omelette is popular and for breakfast poha, a rice-flake porridge, or idli, a southern Indian steamed lentil cake made from fermented batter.Jang's clientele don't tend to worry about eating garlic before a big love scene. That would be a no-no on most films, though maybe some would benefit from added heat and spice.Robert Jang's Punjabi potato curryPopular in northern India, Punjabi potato curry is a favourite with Bollywood cast and crew.2.5kg potatoes, cut into cubes125g butter5 large onions, finely chopped10 green chillies, finely chopped5 tsp ground turmeric5 tsp ground ginger3 tsp ground coriander5 tsp salt2 tsp chilli powder5 tbsp tomato puree5 cups waterBoil potatoes. Melt butter, fry onions and chillies, add turmeric, ginger, coriander, salt, chilli powder and tomato puree. Add water and bring it to the boil, then lower heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Garnish with fresh coriander and serve with paratha (panfried Indian flatbread) or steamed rice.20 servesRecipes are not tested by Good Living.Kerry Fetzer's seafood bon bons500g green crabmeat, prawn meat or fresh fish or a combination of these (vegetarians can substitute tofu)4 tbsp grated fresh ginger3 cloves garlic, minced4 spring onions (white and green parts), finely chopped, plus extra for ties1 bunch coriander (including roots), choppedFresh chilli to taste2 lemon grass stalks, finely choppedZest of 2 limes1 tbsp fish sauceSalt and pepperSpring roll wrappersOil for deep fryingDipping sauce1 cup sweet chilli sauce cup red wine vinegar cup soya sauceJuice and zest of one limeChives, finely choppedCombine the seafood, ginger, garlic, spring onions, coriander, chilli, lemon grass, lime zest, fish sauce and season with salt and pepper. Mix together well. Cut long strips from the green part of extra spring onion and blanch in boiling water for 20 seconds. Remove and refresh in cold water. Separate spring roll wrappers, place about two tablespoons of the seafood mixture in the centre of each wrapper and gather the wrapper around the mixture to form a bon bon. Use the blanched spring onion to wind around the neck of the bon bon (the end does not need to be secured and will hold). Deep fry several at a time, making sure each bon bon can move freely in the oil when rotated with a slotted spoon to ensure even cooking. Remove and drain on kitchen paper. Combine the dipping sauce ingredients and serve with bon bons.