Jerry Wise has a theory about life. “Life is like a restaurant,” he says. “Out front are the presentable people: the waiters, the hostess, the people who look good. In the back, out of sight, are all the freaks and weirdoes hiding out in the kitchen.” If you apply this analogy to the film-catering kitchen, out front are the beautiful people, Hollywood’s luminous humanity, and somewhere tucked away in a kitchen no bigger than a closet are the freaks and weirdoes who feed them.
Wise started working as a film caterer for Location Caterers in 1989 with a two-week stint on Narrow Margin, a long-forgotten thriller starring Gene Hackman. He got the call because Location needed extra help and because his brother, Gordie, was already working there.
“I started on a whim,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’ll do this until I figure out something else.’ I made more money in that two weeks than I had in the previous two months. And I thought, ‘Hey! This is the cat’s ass!’”
Over the years the brothers have cooked for many famous faces, including Gary Oldman, Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner, Kurt Russell, Mel Gibson, Jack Lemmon, Demi Moore, Cybill Shepherd. And the list goes on. With all those celebrity bellies to fill, you’d think there’d be plenty of star hysterics and lurid tales of Hollywood Babylon; however, both brothers say it’s not the talent who are the problem but the people around them: the hangers-on, the hair and makeup people, “the eight family members who show up on set one day and all want a special diet”.
Sometimes it’s the smallest names who are the most demanding. “The newbies are great,” Jerry says, “because they’re just happy to have a job, and the really big people are nice because they’ve learned the hard way. 3000 Miles to Graceland was the most fun I’ve ever had on a job. I thought it was going to be terrible with all these big stars (Kevin Costner, Kurt Russell, Christian Slater) but everyone knew they weren’t making an Oscar winner, so it was a fun set.”
Gordie has a fondness for older stars: “They’re just more human. Tony Randall was the sharpest old guy, Martin Landau was really great… so was Carol Burnett.” But when a set goes bad it usually starts at the top. “Terrance Stamp was a psychotic vegetarian.” says Gordie. “Beware ALWAYS, if the lead actor is a psycho, because everyone becomes a psycho. People are convinced that everything, like flour and carbohydrates are bad for them. You’ve eaten hotdogs your whole life, and now all of a sudden they’re going to kill you!”
Some productions are simply doomed from the start. Both brothers recount The Scarlet Letter as one their all time worse experiences. “Logistically it was a nightmare,” says Gordie. “There were twice as many people as we thought, and we had to hire locals, because of the budget. So we hired some local doofus who when asked to go out and put out new desserts, just takes one off to the side and starts eating it with a giant spoon in full sight of the crew. “EEEE!” says Gordie. “Too much hell!” Then there were the two and a half hour drives in catering trucks up tiny twisting logging roads, with maybe two hours of sleep, plus Demi Moore and her entourage. A particularly telling incident took place late one night.
“We were driving up some tiny little logging road in the middle of the nowhere” says Gordie. “It was pouring rain, and the dirt banks were all getting washed away. Suddenly there was a huge rock in the in middle of road. I swerved to avoid it, but Jerry ran right into it and knocked the wheel right off the truck. We’re standing in dark and rain, trying to change the tire, Jerry’s crying and holding machete against bears, and the van is so loaded up we couldn’t get a jack underneath it. And I thought, ‘This is not what I went to cooking school for.’
A typical catering day starts early. “If there’s a crew call at 7 am, you’re usually up by 1:30 that morning. First we get the trucks there by 4 am, then you have to bake and prep everything, and be ready to serve breakfast by 6 am,” he explains. This type of pressure produces many combustible situations. How does he cope with the stress? “Lots and lots of drugs,” he jokes. “I went crazy a few times but only when I wasn’t working,” Jerry adds. “When you’re working there’s no time, your body won’t let you. Your endorphins are running giving you immunity. It’s during your two weeks off that you get sick.”
Both admit that the hardest part isn’t the cooking or the extreme hours, it’s the film industy’s relentless “Time is money” mantra. “You have to serve lunch on time, no matter what. If lunch is called for 3 pm, you basically have to have 100 to 120 people fed by 3:15.” With three hot items, 16 different salads, and platters of cheese, cold cuts, and veggies, there has to be something for everyone. “I always try to serve something homey, like meat loaf, and something more exciting, like a nice grilled sea bass, and something vegetarian,” says Jerry. Lunch is over by 3:47 and everyone is back at work.
Production can vary from day to day, with talent, crew, and extras adding to the hungering masses, but no matter how many mouths there are to feed, the size of the kitchen remains the same. “You can only fit about two people in the truck,” Gordie says. Working fourteen to sixteen hour days in a confined space with your brother, it’s either cope or commit fratricide.
“If worst comes to worst, you can take a walk or have a little cry in the dish pit.” Although he’s not as vocal as some other chefs, Gordie is still king of the kitchen. “He’s a pushy little fucker, but he’s also the best cook I’ve ever seen and the absolute best at this job,” Jerry says. His brother agrees that catering attracts extreme personalities. “Most cooks are idiot savants, supremely skilled at one thing but complete fuck-ups at the rest of life,” he says. “You have to run a very tight ship. Like any good mother, you learn to use everything, never throw anything away.”
Money is still the biggest draw. “The very first time I was ever in a helicopter, it was me and a bunch of garnishes for Gene Hackman’s hamburger. We were serving on Mount Garibaldi and they flew me and a platter of tomatoes and sliced onions out to the location. That’s when I realized what type of business this was. There’s no other job where you’re cooking for Sharon Stone, a lunk-headed grip guy, and rich old producers who smell like golf carts,” he says.
A mild case of burnout made Jerry consider doing something else. “I made a cooking-show pilot two years ago as my alter ego Big Juicy Meat. Nickelback came in and played a song and we cooked some wild shit.” MTV is showing some interest, but having been in the business for so long, Jerry is ambivalent about the price of fame. “Most people have the ‘I would kill my mother to be on TV’ attitude, but just give me a six-hour shift in the kitchen and let me go home,” he says.