Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Pricey RV feeds hungry film workers
By Kristen Browning-Blas
Denver Post Food Editor
|Who wouldn't jump at the chance to hang out on the set of the Eddie Murphy "NowhereLand" movie shooting here and see what the actors eat, maybe get a glimpse of Eddie himself?
When the Chef Robért Catering staff invited me to tour their trailer, I thought "Jeez, what a pretentious showbiz name." Then I thought, "Well, maybe he's French."
But when Robért Lamkin answered his cellphone, he sure didn't sound French. But the fact that he answered his own phone seemed like a good sign.
And when I got to the set just north of the Downtown Aquarium, he was cooking his own food, another good sign.
Robért runs this movie-catering operation from a 35-foot RV, a double grill/trailer and a truck with a built-in, walk-in fridge. It's like the ultimate covered wagon, complete with three convection ovens, a six-burner stove with a grill and a 20-gallon coffee urn. One of seven in his fleet, this flagship kitchen cost about $300,000, plus $75,000 in extra gear, and the support truck, about $150,000.
"It's a nomadic life," says the chef as he cuts limes for mango chutney. "We've gone from the edge of the Grand Canyon to the Golden Gate Bridge to the Little Bighorn. If they're filming, we're wrangling food."
He got his start in movie catering on "Dances With Wolves," where he also earned his Frenchy-sounding nickname. "I was talking on the radio in a cheesy French accent. Kevin Costner heard me, and he and the crew started calling me 'Ro-bear,' and it stuck."
Somehow, it doesn't sound like name-dropping when he tells the story.
Robért's been feeding actors for 18 years, and he's used to special requests. He's flown into locations everything from New York steaks to a sushi chef, but he doesn't see his clients as spoiled divas, rather as hardworking executives who want to keep morale high.
"Working on a big film like this, you have to handle every curve ball and still keep the actors and producers happy," he says, neatly separating lime segments. "You have to be able to make everything from exotic fare to white-trash grilled cheese."
He won't say who wanted the "white-trash" food but, when pushed for names, tells how Kevin Kline would come into the trailer and "chop ground beef at the grill with me." And Keanu Reeves, notoriously careful about what he eats, "has a terrible weakness for my semisweet chocolate walnut cookies."
On this movie, starring Eddie Murphy as a distracted executive whose daughter's imaginary world holds the answers to his troubles, Robért and his seven-person crew will feed about 350 people twice a day while filming in Denver through Friday.
"Typically, actors and actresses eat when the crew eats," he says, still working his way through a giant bag of limes. "It is odd when you're used to seeing them on the big screen, but what's remarkable is their normalcy."
As if on cue, Murphy strolls past the buffet line, inspecting the veggie burgers. Acting cool, I say, "Oh wow, that's Eddie!" His knife still slicing through lime segments, Robért glances over and says, "Nah, that's his stand-in."
I can't take my eyes off the man who looks like, well, Eddie Murphy's double. Exactly like him - buff in a skin-tight turtleneck and black skullcap.
Murphy usually sends his assistant's assistant over for food, preferring to stick close to the set, Robért's business partner, Ray Bidenost, tells me. That's right, his assistant's assistant.
Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura has worked with Chef Robért Catering since producing his first movie in 2004, and through shooting "Transformers" in 2006. "As a producer, my first production, 'Constantine,' had Chef Robért on it because I knew that a well-fed crew was a happy crew," di Bonaventura said in an e-mail to The Post. "Plus Robért's cookies are in life's greatest treats category. He should franchise them."
During the "Transformers" shoot at Holloman Air Force Base in southern New Mexico, the company flew specialty meats and fish into El Paso, Texas, and a member of the catering crew drove the 180-mile round trip to retrieve them.
Excessive? Not in Robért's book. He's been on many locations in the middle of nowhere. "Food is actually critical. More often than not, you're the best restaurant in town."
Robért counts on executive chef Brad Combs to keep his wagon running smoothly. Combs works his culinary network to bring in as many local ingredients - and helpers - as possible. Today, two Johnson and Wales University students, Jeremy Cartwright and Erin Higgins, help the crew of six feed 340 people.
And that's nothing. Once, in San Francisco, the company was set to feed 3,000 and an extra 600 showed up. They boiled some pasta and defrosted chicken cutlets, and nobody had any idea that wasn't part of the plan.
This night, the cast and crew and extras will dine on slow-roasted lamb with red curry sauce and the mango chutney Robért's been working on all morning.
"If we walk on set, we're celebrities in our own right," he says. We didn't get to put that statement to the test, as Robért got word that shooting would finish an hour early, so he would have to have dinner ready early as well. At the other location, the Belmar ice rink in Lakewood. No one complains as they pack up the entire operation and double-wrap the huge bowl of mangoes and lime segments.
"This pays quite well - you can work nine months and then have three months off. A chef can make comfortably over $100,000 a year," says Robért. (Chef Robért Catering is donating $1,000 to therewithcare.org, a Boulder-based group that offers support to families with sick children.)
But, "We don't do this for the money. We do this for the love of food, and for someone to smile and say 'How did you make this?"'
Kristen Browning-Blas: 303-954-1440 or firstname.lastname@example.org