By Linda White
Special to the Toronto Sun
The streets of Toronto have been used to portray cities like Chicago and New York. But when it's time to nourish everyone from grips to Hollywood's hottest stars, one thing that can't be faked is good food.
Catering by David's is now the exclusive caterer to The Cinderella Man starring Russell Crowe and Renee Zellweger.
Not only must it appease the appetites of everyone on set, it must leave them wanting more. After all, a caterer's reputation is earned one meal at a time.
"It takes a long time to build up that rapport," says David Mintz, owner of Catering By David's, one of Toronto's most sought-after caterers.
'Never a given'
"Working with a producer from New York or L.A. gives us some credibility, but it's never a given...We believe we have to earn our reputation every day."
Mintz launched his business after dropping off a complimentary meal to a set. He's since catered hundreds of productions, including Oscar-winner Good Will Hunting. He's tempted the palates of Robin Williams, Matt Damon, Sean Connery and Harrison Ford and is now the exclusive caterer to The Cinderella Man starring Russell Crowe and Renee Zellweger.
According to the Toronto Film and Television Office, the film industry supports 28,000 jobs in the city and generates more than $1 billion into the local economy annually.
Caterers to the film industry are eager to earn a slice of the pie, but must be prepared for ups and downs. This year is better than last, for example, but hasn't yet returned to pre-SARS levels of activity, reports Mintz.
It's a demanding business that calls for creativity, ability to meet a budget, organization, punctuality, flexibility and exceptional service. "The challenge, especially if you're the only caterer, is to not repeat yourself over a four- to six-week period," says Donnie Blais, owner of Rancho Relaxo.
Donnie Blais, left, owner of Rancho Relaxo caterers, and Les, an employee, are working on the set of Queer As Folk..
An up-and-coming caterer that serves productions like Queer As Folk, Blais sidestepped into the business after a production house rented his restaurant lounge to shoot a music video and asked him to do all their catering.
"Caterers often work on rotation in order to keep the selection fresh and interesting. That takes the pressure off a caterer, but because we're capable of keeping food interesting, some productions will keep us on for the whole production," Blais says.
"It's exciting, challenging and rewarding," he says. "To show up on a set with everyone coming at you with their plates and knowing they're going to dig it is an amazing feeling."
Getting food to a location on time is crucial. "The one thing you can't be in this business is late because that can cost a production thousands of dollars," Blais says. "Not only do you risk being charged a meal penalty, but you can lose a very lucrative contract."
Caterers must also be prepared for last-minute schedule changes, dictated, for example, by a director wanting to wrap up an outdoor shoot before bad weather sets in.
ON THE SET|
Production managers typically hire caterers in the weeks and months before shooting begins.
A caterer can be hired as part of a rotation of caterers or exclusively to serve the entire production.
Caterers set menus but may be asked to accommodate special requests.
They most often provide a buffet lunch and occasionally provide dinner as well.
Caterers feed up to 80 people on small productions and up to 300 on big productions.
When catering to such a wide variety of tastes, not every meal is going to be a winner. "It's great when people come up and say it was a great meal, but I don't mind if they come up and say they didn't enjoy something as much," Mintz says. Along with partners Stewart Webb and John Doyle, he encourages constructive criticism.
An entree may get the thumbs down, but service must not. "Our philosophy is that if someone goes into a restaurant and gets lousy food and great service, they will come back," Mintz says. "We feel that is a very strong part of why people have been loyal to us. When they say 'jump' we say 'how high,' even after 18 years."
Caterers are often listed in a film's credits and take pride in their role. "I will definitely go to see The Cinderella Man," Mintz says. "It has been an unbelievable experience. A lot have been good, but this is phenomenal. We've always had a great feeling of support from the crew on up. You feel like you're part of the team."
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