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Hollywood Caterers Vie to Do Lunch

Although there are fewer and shorter TV and film productions, there's a surge in food preparers on the scene.

October 14, 2003|Melinda Fulmer | Times Staff Writer

Steve Michelson, owner of Limelight Catering, was busy at lunchtime on the set of a TV show when he spotted some artfully arranged appetizers left for the cast and crew to nibble on. Each appetizer plate was garnished with a catering rival's business card.

Enraged, Michelson picked up the food, marched outside the sound stage, confronted his competitor and warned the chef to keep his distance. Then he dumped the offending snacks into the trash.

The oven mitts are off in the once-genteel world of Hollywood catering, as a growing number of businesses compete for a dwindling number of high-paying film and TV jobs.

In the last five years, the number of motion picture catering trucks in Los Angeles has swelled 40% to 139. At the same time, the number of shooting days on feature films has declined 40%, according to the Entertainment Industry Development Corp., as productions have moved to Canada and other countries.

Moviemakers hire caterers because they can't afford to have their crews take time away from the set in search of food.

Chow breaks on films typically last only half an hour from the moment that the last crew member has grabbed a plate. At that point, the rush is on for a caterer to whip up the next meal, as well as prepare special menus for the stars, such as the strict vegan diet required by Alicia Silverstone or the no-oil, no-whole-eggs fare requested by Keanu Reeves.

By and large, film caterers are paid $14 to $17 a day per person for the two meals they feed crew members on a movie set. If a caterer feeds 200 people and reels in $15 a head, that works out to $3,000 a day. Because movie shoots often last through weekends, and it can take three months to complete a production, that can result in a $270,000 catering job -- more if extra meals are served.

Multiply that by several trucks serving different film shoots around town, and a successful caterer can pull in several million dollars in revenue annually.

Robert Lamkin started his firm, Chef Robert, in 1998 after working for several other caterers. His West Hollywood business has five catering trucks, and he expects to book $2.5 million in sales this year from jobs on two feature films, three TV shows (which tend to have smaller crews and also pay a little less per person than movies do), plus some weekend catering gigs.

Tough Crowd

Though there is good money to be made, competition is increasingly cutthroat.

While working in Los Angeles on the recent remake of the film "Freaky Friday" starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Lamkin was paid the same $15 per plate, per day that most caterers pulled in a decade ago. He was, however, expected to provide a far more lavish spread.

Instead of serving a couple of entrees, he puts out a variety of meat and vegetarian dishes, plus separate pasta and smoothie bars.

"People have become more sophisticated about food, and that, coupled with caterers looking to outdo each other, has made it a lot more difficult," Lamkin said.

Caterers often shell out $250,000 to buy specialized trucks with expensive ovens, grills and refrigerator and freezer compartments needed to whip up large feedings. Lamkin recently spent $20,000 to add a kettle corn trailer to his truck. He also rolls out a mobile pizza kitchen on some shoots.

"People expect there to be huge amounts of really good food all the time," said movie extra Dorian Frankel, as she scooped up a bite of fresh Chilean sea bass on a break from the Kim Basinger action movie "Cellular," which is filming in downtown Los Angeles.

On this job, Michelson and Limelight Catering partner Keykhosrow Radji were dishing up the sea bass, as well as rack of lamb with pomegranate sauce, chicken with a Chardonnay cream sauce and spaghetti and ravioli at a nearby pasta bar.

Pasta bars, omelet stations and outsized smokers are a few of the gimmicks caterers use to try to make their spreads more exciting and one-up the competition. But rivals quickly scramble to match such offerings.

"Crew members from other companies have shown up on set to take pictures of our setup," Michelson said.

Some caterers also resort to offering kickbacks to producers in exchange for a catering gig, according to industry insiders. And many chefs routinely approach directors and offer to cater a birthday party or cook a Thanksgiving dinner free.

"It's kind of the equivalent of a hairdresser cutting a friend's hair for free, but it can quickly escalate away from that," Lamkin said.

Despite the heavy competition, cramped and steamy kitchens and 16-hour workdays, culinary students and restaurant cooks continue to pour into the business.

The reason? Money.

Although many restaurant cooks work long hours for $40,000 to $50,000 a year, chefs in the motion picture catering business are classified as drivers in the Teamsters union. Depending on how many sets they work on, they can make twice that annual amount and receive full benefits.

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