Pulp.net - Extreme Catering

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November 2008
EXTREME CATERING

Alexander James Scott
It took five hours to set up the stunt. The car would drive slowly over the explosion and blow up.
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The car had been bought cheap off some Middle Eastern diplomat who was very keen to leave the country when it turned out that his diplomatic status had been achieved by some very sharp suits and a document that owed more to Photoshop than any government body. The car was bomb proof. There was a two inch thick steel plate welded onto the chassis. When the car was remotely driven over the explosion and the stunt coordinator, from a safe distance, turned the lever and smiled with professional nonchalance, he wasn’t expecting the car to be shot like a firework, 30 metres into the sky. I was refreshing the tea and coffee when this happened. The crew and cast followed the path of the car and stared, open mouthed as it seemed to hang like a child’s mobile in the air for an impossibly long time before starting its descent to god knows where. God knows where turned out to be squarely on top of my catering wagon.

I sat in the producer’s trailer as he looked over the insurance details, waiting for the company’s legal person to drive the 30 miles from the office to our location, an airfield in damp, grey and soundless Yorkshire. I shuffled slightly, wondering whether to feel indignant over my loss or apologetic over my request for a pay out. To be fair, I actually hadn’t said a word to anyone in the hour and a half since my business halved in height. I put the fresh coffee urn down on the table and stared at the growing flood plain of potato halves. I was intrigued at how much space potatoes for 50 people cover when you spread them out, one potato thick. My commis chef, Steve, who had been flirting with one of the make-up girls came running over to me and clasped my shoulders in his cold hands. His excited response, ‘Fucking Hell’, seemed to sum things up.

The producer, a slight man of about 55 glanced up at me from behind his impromptu desk in the porta-office. He stared at me as if I had given a left-field answer to an interview question, rather than waiting for some kind of response to the fact that he’d ruined my career. ‘I suppose this is going to delay the catering,’ he said, more to himself than posed as a question.

He looked back down at his policies but decided it would be a better use of time to sigh deeply and lean back in his chair. He searched for his cigarettes and herded one into his mouth, lighting it and exhaling luxuriantly. I had a horrible feeling he was going to say ‘Well, John, what are we going to do with you?’ I was getting more and more nervous. Here was a man with power, a man confident enough with himself to sit and wait for some lackey to turn up to deal with the situation than to offer me any kind of apology, or even explanation of what would happen next. He was concerned about the 4 o’clock cakes but that seemed the extent of his distress.

I am a location caterer for film and television programmes. I know how to prepare a decent meal for 65 people in a space most battery hens would turn their nose up at. I work with two other people in a perverse ballet of raw meat, vegetables and extreme heat. I had saved up for 2 years whilst working with another kitchen, lived like a student, worked 14 hour days, 6 days a week since leaving college and learnt the skills necessary to turn half a hundred weight of fresh veg into a Thai curry fit for British television’s greatest actors, not to mention the more difficult, and certainly more precious camera crews. I had finally bought my kitchen, fitted it out to my specifications, hired my surly and flirtatious staff (a must on any film shoot) and had won my first job. I was elated, I was living my dream. As dreams go, it may not be to everyone’s taste but it’s the differences that make life worth living, isn’t it?

Two weeks into a four month shoot, I find myself sitting in the producer’s caravan with a ‘no-questions-asked’ Mercedes Benz E Class MB limousine squatting sheepishly on what used to be the roof of my nearly brand new kitchen. I think it should be noted that once the Merc was hauled down, it was in good enough condition to be driven away, have my skillet removed from the chassis and still complete the stunt.

The producer asked me to step outside. I was half expecting him to throw his arm around me and take me on a fatherly walk where he would divulge the ups and downs of life and maybe launch into a ‘Y’know, a similar thing once happened to me’ story. I was a little upset to hear the door shut firmly behind be with the producer firmly on the inside. ‘I’ll let you know when legal gets here,’ he shouted through the flimsy door. I searched the skies hoping for more flying Limos that may have been heading his way.

The nearest pub to the shoot was within walking distance, over the aerodrome, through a field of cows and a fast running, rust coloured stream. Steve and I trudged up the path to the oddly named Victor Hugo Inn in silence, both puffing away on our cigarettes. I was still in my whites and if anyone from the crew, anal enough to take note saw me, I’d probably be looking for another job. But then again, I reminded myself, I didn’t have a kitchen anyway. It was half four in the afternoon.

I got a phone call at seven. I had drunk two double brandies and two pints of exceptionally strong bitter and had fallen asleep on Steve’s lap. We were being gently prodded by the bar girl.
‘Your phone’s going,’ she said in an archetypal flat Yorkshire accent. It was the producer on the line.
‘You better come back here. Legal has some news for you.’

We trudged back through the stream, field with cows and aerodrome in silence. After threatening to sack Steve from a non-existent job, I persuaded him to lend me his jeans so at least I wouldn’t offend anyone with my chef less-than-white whites. I spotted the producer sitting in a director’s chair with Legal fidgeting beside him. Legal; no-one had bothered to find out his name, was the son of the Finance Director and hated by everyone. Production people, contrary to popular belief, are incredibly meritocratic and loathe nepotism as much as the next person. I worked on a shoot where the sparks had practically pistol-whipped a work-experience boy because his uncle was the editor. You have to prove yourself to crews and that means long hours, shit pay and taking the flack for everything. I looked around for a runner to smack round the head.

‘John,’ the producer said. It sounded like a death sentence.

Legal kept his eyes firmly fixed on the paperwork and used his pencil to emphasise every second syllable of his speech. ‘So, you see, as the combination of events could not have been accounted for, what happened to your, er, kitchen, er, comes under what the insurance policy, er, terms, er, An Act of God’. He looked at me and gave a half smile. Realising this wasn’t what was really called for he immediately began to study his tie. ‘Is God insured?’ I enquired as I walked away.

Steve was sat on what was left of the kitchen steps, smoking a cigarette and blowing smoke rings. I hadn’t dared go back and face my former business premises. I felt like I’d let my kitchen down. I wanted to apologise. I’m sorry that a car landed on you. If only I’d seen it coming. How could I have been so stupid? I approached it tentatively and tried to see the bright side. Steve looked up at me, his face a blank mask. ‘How bad is it?’ I pointlessly asked him. He let out a small choking giggle followed by a hearty smoker’s cough. The kitchen had lost about 4 feet in height, had concertina’d in on itself. The serving hatch resembled a wound, like someone had let a imploding grenade off inside. ‘Do you realise how fucking lucky we were?’ Steve asked. I hadn’t even thought about that aspect. I could have been crushed like a mackerel, up to my elbows in potato peelings if it hadn’t have been for the slightly dodgy urn I bought which meant the coffee needed replenishing every hour. Two weeks in and the urn was starting to annoy me. And yet, I was alive and well, all thanks to Jatinder’s Re-conditioned Kitchenware, Streatham High Road, SW 16.

Steve sidled closer to me. ‘Y’know, I reckon this’ll help me get into Claire’s knickers.’ He tipped me a wink. Steve was only 23 and he was already tipping people winks and talking like a 40 year old salesman. I’d met him on one of the jobs I’d done when I first started out doing locations. He was employed to wash up and make the sandwiches. He was actually far more useful at keeping the crew onside if the food was late and providing general entertainment when things got slow, as they invariably did on long shoots. Unfortunately his work rate was lower the more girls there were in the crew and on this shoot he was making every effort to father an entire population of make up and costume children. He was rugged and wiry and apparently knew no fear of rejection. I had witnessed him approach and win the hearts of some of the most tender, shy and offish girls I had ever worked with. ‘You never know unless you ask. And anyway, they like a bit of rough,’ he would tell me. He didn’t know I knew he had gone to boarding school. Only a public school education can instill that disgusting amount of confidence.

I spent the rest of the evening wandering around, lost, forlorn and dazed. I didn’t know what to do. I thought of a million people I should ring but thought better of it. My parents would blame me, my girlfriend would use it as an excuse to blame the business and get me to quit. My bank manager would put a contract out on me. I decided the safest bet would be to walk around in aimless circles waiting for filming to finish. I needed routine. With my two urns now the sum total of two years hard graft, I would serve the finest tea and coffee this shoot had ever had. The little Daihatsu Hi-Jet was still loaded with tomorrow’s groceries including tea, coffee, cakes and more veg, although I decided the veg could stay put. It seemed to be a bad omen. When the shooting wrapped for the day, Steve and I pulled out all the stops and put on, what felt like to me, an end of shoot party.

Steve was needlessly helping Claire pack up her make-up bag and I was sitting on the tailgate of the props van, swinging my legs and trading tragedy stories with the props guys when I felt a change come over the crew. There was a barely detectable increase in temperature and a stiffening of postures that only the presence of authority can bring. There was an executive on location. I saw him approach me, all smiles and comradely looks of ‘we’re in this together’. Something seems to happen to producers when they are elevated to executive status. They can stop trying to assert what little authority they have as your run-of-the-mill producers and actually start wielding the muscle that being the All Powerful brings. They lose their aloof edge and regain a likable ‘hands on’ attitude to their infant shoot, nurturing the cast and crew and bringing all and sundry to their corporate bosom. This Exec, Geoff Chalmers, was a bear of a man, proud of his Yorkshire roots and his Yorkshire voice. We had bantered casually at meal times, divided, as always, by the serving hatch. He always started any sentence with a deep inhalation of the smell of the food and, without commenting further, would launch into whatever was on his mind, keeping talking as he wandered down the steps and into whoever’s life he felt like. He stopped about a foot away from me. ‘I’ve just taken a look at your kitchen. It’s pretty fucked,’ he stated, obviously. I managed a small laugh. ‘Well, at least I wasn’t in it,’ I replied in a resigned tone, legs still swinging like a schoolgirl. ‘Heard what Legal said, goes down as an Act of God.’ He looked thoughtful, as if he were about to challenge God with an Act of Exec.
‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘you don’t get many flying Mercs landing on kitchens apparently.’
‘Mmm, mmm,’ he agreed, lost in his own executive world. He exhaled for what seemed far too long to be healthy before smiling and clasping me on the shoulder. ‘Leave it with me,’ he said. And then he was gone.

I don’t usually go to the pub after shooting as my working day starts at 4.30am. I arrive at the kitchen, open up, get the radio on, connect the gas and turn on all the rings and the grill to heat up my metal tomb. There is nothing colder than a location kitchen at half four in the morning in February, in Yorkshire. I then wait for Steve to pull up in the Hi-Jet and get the tea and coffee going. After a coffee, a cigarette and a ritual moan, I go through the menu and start breakfast whilst Steve gets on with the cakes and sandwiches. We’re a well oiled machine encased in stainless steel. The kitchen is our sanctuary and our tool. And mine was half the height it should be. I don’t usually go to the pub after shooting but unless I was going to find a way of preparing and serving meals whilst crawling through a maze of metal, I had nothing to get up for.

Even though the crew was shooting tomorrow, getting drunk on Friday night is a hard habit to break and there seemed to be no intention of breaking it tonight. I was shoe-horned into a corner sofa and was trying to focus on the third sympathy brandy I had bought for me. I was learning that brandy makes crushed kitchens a thing of the past. From what I could make out, over to my left, Steve was making Claire laugh like a horse, make up forgotten for the day and to my right was, strangely enough, one of the leading actors. Up until now, I’d thought he was stand-offish and yet here he was, asking my opinion on sauces. He had been in a few costume dramas and dipped his toe in Hollywood before returning to his native England with his tail between his legs. It transpired that he wasn’t made for the stark reality of LA and, although the rewards were smaller in England, so were the egos. He preferred to be a medium sized fish in small pond and found the back stabbing and bitchiness in America depressing. I asked him if he hadn’t found any work out there. He said yes. I found myself in the half drunk position of being opened up to by an actor. He was worried about typecasting, doing adverts, looking for work, not being able to settle down, younger actors and his nose. I was worried about having a dwarf kitchen and the fact my girlfriend was going to castrate me. I hadn’t dared phone her yet and I knew she’d be more annoyed now about me not contacting her. I decided to send her a quick text message. ‘N pub w/ crew. Bap day. Tlk ltr. Loaf you loads.’ We compared problems and concluded I was far worse off in the short term with maybe the actor being bound for a life of sorrow. At least I could buy a new kitchen.

As I waited for the taxi to pick me up in the pub car park, I started to think about the car that had sat like a mother hen, on the roof of my kitchen. I slumped on one of the outside tables, head in my hands, burping gently and realised I could have died. I could have been remembered as the chef who was crushed by a flying Mercedes limousine. People would try and talk seriously about my demise, but as time passed, I would enter into the realms of urban legends and my death would become a giggle. Steve would inherit my clients and would marry Claire. The producer would make sure he has a flying car clause written into his insurance contracts. The executive would use the experience as a warning to difficult actors. And the diplomat, if he ever found out, would be known throughout the shady fake-diplomat world as the man with the killer car.

I left the shoot and got a job in a restaurant. It was boring and it was easy and the staff were surly and I resented every shift I had to do. I had been there three months and was considering joining a kibutz when I got a phone call from the Executive Producer, Geoff. ‘Good news about your kitchen dilemma. I haven’t said anything earlier because I didn’t want to get your hopes up.’ There was a gleeful, childlike quality to his voice. ‘What’s happened?’ I replied, tentatively. A long exhale from the other end of the phone. ‘Well, we caught the stunt on camera, including the car landing on your kitchen. We kept the footage for posterity and maybe to show any actors who got my back up. I did some research and managed to sell the rights to a number of American and European shock shows, you know the ones that make ‘Cops’ look like a BAFTA winner, and, well, we thought we’d buy you a new kitchen, as it gave its life for entertainment. I’ve got another shoot starting in a month’s time. Some period piece down in Devon. Should give you enough time to get your affairs in order?’
‘Uh, yes sir.’ The ‘sir’ was instinctive. Geoff overlooked it. ‘Good,’ he said, putting at least five Os in the word, ‘the production manager will be in touch. See you soon.’

I put my phone back in my pocket and shuffled towards the door. I sat on the step and lit a cigarette, my usual prelude to a deep and meaningful moment. My girlfriend wouldn’t be happy. I’d have to persuade Steve to give up his job at Harvester where apparently, some of the waitresses are ‘very’ tasty. And it would probably be best to look into reinforcing the roof.





© Alexander James Scott 2003
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