An army marches on its stomach. A production crew will commit a kind of metaphysical mutiny if its stomach is filled with unsatisfactory amounts of food products. It happens almost immediately on set. As soon as the food is determined to be subpar, the collective attitude slouches toward the 7th ring of hell.
The producer is summed up by a group of people who may wolf ramen and Red Bull at home or consume gummy bears and In-N-Out in their cars littered with empty cigarette packs but on set, they morph into Gordon Ramsey. Even the 80-pound PA turns into a UFC fighter when they spy the taco bar going up on day 18.
I can count on one hand where the crew has actually enjoyed the food on a film or TV set. And usually there has been a trained chef or a craft service person with nearly 25 years of experience at the helm. Crew catering may seem like an easy ride but I’ll wager that’s it’s one of the hardest and trickiest jobs in film production.
“It used to be that you simply made fresh stuff and learned the habits of your crew and actors. Now, it’s gluten free, vegan, and very specific food requests. And then you’re given a tiny budget. My budgets used to be at least 35% more. It’s tough to make it work on shrinking budgets but your job can directly affect everyone on set so you do your very best.“ These are the tried and true words of a crew catering veteran who works out of her custom trailer on a studio lot on the Westside of Los Angeles.
In defense of the crew member, if this is your day-to-day job, food is huge. Many times, crew members don’t have the time or are not allowed to walk away for a meal. Or they are shooting in a remote location that simply doesn’t have any offerings. They depend on the food provided on set for nourishment and recalibration if the shoot isn’t going so well.
A pal of mine is a location sound mixer. Since things get slow around the fall and winter, he takes whatever gigs just to pad his account. But one recent gig had him reeling. “I was told to bring my OWN bowl to a set where they were paying money so low, I don’t want to tell you what it was. And they served 99 Cent Store soup to us… every day.” Now that might even make me want to choke a bitch out. That’s simply inhumane and unecessary. “After day two, I went to the Ralph’s across the street,” he shakes his head.
“And hey, it’s not like I’m expecting filet mignon. We are working long days with no OT. Come on, if you’re going to pay that low, feed people decently. Cause, damn. My rig costs $14,000 and you can’t afford to spend $5 a head on lunch.”
When I was on the road covering news and later when I was on tour for a popular musical act, 7-Eleven egg salad sandwiches (still a fond favorite) and beef jerky were staples. I would also pack corn nuts and dried fruit. Because you never know what you’re in for. Many times covering news, you’re landing in places (disaster areas) where the available food might be Red Cross or nothing. Or you’re moving at the speed of light so you’re eating whatever on the run. The philosophy was that you ate when you could, what you could because it might be a long time until your next meal.
I’ve been accused of being picky at home but on the road, I roll with it. But I’ve witnessed dear friends devolve into cavemen over food on the road and on set. I saw a friend once hang onto their long awaited Starbucks while being accidentally tear gassed. He desperately held onto his venti latte with a double ad shot all the way to ground, snot and other bodily fluids projectile ejecting from his face.
Besides keeping your feet dry, parking, clarity on per diem (which has gone the way of the Dodo) and gig butt, the number one priority is what’s on that catering/crafty table.
Too many carbs at catering and you’re falling asleep. Too much rich food and you’re doing the two-step trots all the way to the honey wagon. Skip a meal in certain conditions and you’ll start to hallucinate.
And vegetarians and vegans… well, they are in a special hell along with their buddies who are trying to observe dietary restrictions or religious practices. “Rice and iceberg lettuce are NOT considered a vegetarian or vegan option!” This rant from a 2nd AD friend. “I’m not expecting that they provide organic and expensive vegetarian meals but how many times do I have to order my own food? We have the Internet. Can’t they look this stuff up?”
If you’re about to say, “Why can’t they bring their own food?” At stripped down day rates, 4:30 a.m. or late night crew calls and 12 to 16 hour days (and sometimes more counting drive time to home and back), I’d dare you to suggest that to someone. We’ll have the set medic on standby for you.
A chef friend of mine, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that crew catering and crafty is an art. “I think it has a lot to do with your giving a damn factor. I’ve gotten small budgets but I make it work. I love what I do and want people to be happy. They are tired, hot, wet or simply bored between takes. My job is to work magic. I don’t go to Smart & Final.”
As he’s explaining this to me, he’s cutting up fresh strawberries for an elaborate salad. “I go to the farmer’s market, Trader Joes and other places and find fresh things. I’ve gotten burly electricians to try seared tuna and edamame. And I’ve never gone over budget. I think that anyone who serves schlock to keep as much cash for themselves should get out of the catering business.”
We know you have your own horror stories about crew catering. And you might also have a pleasant experience to share. Please do! In the comments below or on our contact page, share your story and we’ll repost it below.