“You just can’t walk in here and interview the chef!” was not the greeting I expected when I arrived at the set of the movie “42.” Apparently there had been a TMZ scare since Indy Jones was wandering around and when I walked into a secure area with a camera it didn’t set well with security. Fortunately, movie catering chef and “fixer” Chef E. walked up to not only approved my presence, but to soothe the savage security beast with promises of sweet roasted pork to come. “I’m roasting a whole pig tomorrow,” was all Chef E. had to say and the guard was fist-bumping and smiling with approval as we made our way to the crew dining area just outside of Engel Stadium.
Chef E. is a hyper-kinetic member of the team that provides food for the cast and crew on set, separate from the simple bagged lunches and snacks given to the hordes of extras. With the exception of a massive smoker on a trailer, the setup is a fairly straightforward, large catering configuration with grills, chafing dishes and table skirts. The lunch menu for the day had perfectly smoked pork loin, ginger glazed mahi-mahi, chipotle grilled chicken, octopus and shrimp ceviche, and a collection of side dishes such as cornbread, green beans and carrots with maple and cinnamon that could rival a Baptist homecoming.
While Chef E. fried some plantains, our conversation turned to local foods and farmers. “I got that pig from a local farm I found in this magazine,” he said as he excitedly pulled a copy of Gaining Ground’s Taste Buds food guide from his back pocket. He had emailed the farmers in the guide ahead of his arrival and set up relationships to buy produce and meats. “It’s more effort to buy local and sustainable, but the production companies and the people who eat the food prefer it. It’s a win-win for everyone when we get great food and the locals get the money. We’d rather spend our money with the local guys than with the big box stores or huge companies like Koch’s.”
This commitment to sustainable local foods is a huge source of pride for the chef and also the movie catering company he works for, Mario’s Catering.
I talked the chef into letting me follow along while he did a little shopping at the Main Street Farmers Market and he ran through the market like a tornado, picking up hundreds of dollars of locally grown and produced foods in minutes. Dozens of eggs from Pocket Farms, a cooler full of sausages from Link 41, jars of Sale Creek’s sourwood honey, along with sackfulls of produce from farms such as Signal Mountain Farm, TanT Hill Farm and Walden Peak Farm piled up for delivery to the movie set while the chef chatted up the farmers about the merits of certain varieties of squash and crop planting strategies. You know, food geek stuff.
Between purchases I asked the chef about his experience with Chattanooga area farmers and businesses.
“Chattanooga has been way easier to work with than many other cities because you have so many great farmers markets and such awesome small farmers,” he said.
Chef E. said he believes there is a serious opportunity for local farmers, food producers and the Tennessee Film Commission to form partnerships towards providing future film productions with fresh, local food for their cast and crew. Flexibility, competitive pricing, and availability will be key, he said, but Chattanooga is one of the more organized and forward-thinking cities that he’s worked in so he’s optimistic it can be done. Someone will just need to take the lead and connect the dots.
“We roll through town like an army,” he said. “So if I need basil or chickens I can’t have someone say ‘maybe Wednesday or Thursday.’ I have to be sure I have it when I need it and at a competitive price. I have no doubt you guys could do that.”
Mission accomplished, Chef E. mentioned that he had to go calm his hotel roommate, who was upset about the bathtub full of trout he found in their room this evening. Apparently the chef got a great deal from Pickett’s Trout Farm, needed somewhere to put them overnight and figured a bathtub full of ice would do the trick. I don’t know if that violates the Choo Choo’s bathtub trout policy, but I hope he at least left a crisp Andrew Jackson for housekeeping. I’m not sure if even the Scrubbing Bubbles are prepared for bathtub trout.
Mike McJunkin cooks better than you and eats quite a lot of very strange food. Visit his Facebook page (Sushi and Biscuits) for updates and recipes.