Set menu

Flying cakes, chickens filled with mashed potato and stuffed jackdaws are all in a day’s work for a food film stylist. Sudi Pigott takes a behind-the-scenes look at the meals you see in the movies.

Set menu

Nanny McPhee

Most of the audience for the new Harry Potter film, The Goblet Of Fire, will no doubt be on the edge of their seats, willing Harry to triumph over Voldemort. But Mary Luther’s big moment will come when she sees whether the Hogwarts dessert feast scene she spent weeks cooking for is given a starring role. “I must have baked 20,000 profiteroles,” laughs Mary, a food film stylist who’s worked on all the Harry Potter films.

Not all the food, however, is edible. The OTT pyramids of ice-cream cones and chocolate Swiss rolls seen in the film are all resin stand-ins copied by professional model-makers from Mary’s real prototypes, which wouldn’t last in the heat of the lights. “You never say no in the movies; the impossible happens all the time. Everything can be contrived or faked,” explains Mary, who trained at the Culinary Institute Of America in New York and has also worked as a development chef for food brands.

“When the director wanted a levitating cake in Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, my mutters of ‘food doesn’t fly naturally, even with wires,’ were brushed aside.” With the help of electrical wizardry, a mix of meringue and ersatz plastercast and copious re-piping by Mary (continuity is vital – a dish must look the same for each take), Dobby’s cake really did fly, “but it was very nerve-wracking,” Mary admits.

Although it sounds glamorous to cook food for films, the reality is very different. For a start, if you’re lucky you’re cooking in a draughty studio hangar with banks of fridges, a hastily connected oven and a trestle table. On many a lavish period drama set in a stately home, the food film stylist is battling against the elements in a flimsy tent with an even more makeshift kitchen in a windswept field. Then there are the hours of waiting, punctuated by frenzied activity and mind-numbing repetition.

“Sometimes I feel like a short-order chef in a fast-food drive-in,” says Mary, remembering the recent shooting of a Hogwarts breakfast scene. “I got incredibly adept at frying eggs very slowly, holding the yolk so the white really set and bathing it sunny-side-up in vegetable oil to keep it looking moist.” Like most food on set, a fried egg will only hold its looks for half an hour at most before you need to start again. Mary’s trick to keep the bacon glistening appetisingly was to paint it with redcurrant jelly. The sweet-salty taste was so delicious that Daniel Radcliffe, who plays Harry Potter, pronounced it the best ever.

While most chefs dictate when their food appears on the table, it’s a moveable feast on set. Occasionally, a non-food take can over-run so drastically that to keep on schedule, the director may drop a whole banquet scene. And sometimes the camera cuts the shot off above the table so the food is not even in view. As Debbie Brodie, the doyenne of film food stylists, says: “The role of the food is to enhance the visual interest of the set, not to indulge the stylist’s culinary prowess.”

Significantly, Debbie spent 20 years as a television art director before enrolling on a Leiths cookery course, as she longed to open her own restaurant. A former colleague suggested she try combining her food and art direction expertise and commissioned Debbie for a TV period drama, putting her new career in motion.

“The food detective element of my work is particularly exciting,” says Debbie, who starts her research by looking at period paintings for food references and studying historical culinary manuals. She cooks the dishes using the precise culinary techniques and ingredients of the period. “It is only when I know exactly how the dish should turn out that I can start experimenting to make it work cinematically.” For example, Debbie uses copious amounts of gelatine to create moulded fruit jellies with suspended fruit: “It’s disgustingly chewy, but it is necessary if it is to stand up to the rigours of filming.”

Pride & Prejudice

As with top chefs, having great suppliers is vital – such as butchers who can supply heads-on game and pig’s trotters. Debbie’s roll call also includes model-makers able to reproduce the likes of stuffed jackdaws, and even taxidermists who can supply peacock-lookalike stuffed pheasants.

But her most bizarre task involved seafood. Crustacea are anathema on film sets – most stars won’t go near anything remotely whiffy – so Debbie once cooked endless lobsters, halved them, scooped out all the flesh and washed the shells. She then filled them with a rice, tomato, mint and feta mixture: bland enough for the stars to eat repeatedly for the inevitable re-takes.

Very occasionally, Debbie is called on to teach the cast to cook. For Gosford Park, she instructed the extras in preparing meals authentically for a grand household: trussing, plucking, baking and creating show-off aspic moulds. Debbie remembers Richard E Grant became very fond of the rich fruitcake she prepared and would come to the kitchen for afternoon tea.

One of Debbie’s protégées, Katherine Tidy, also ended up in film styling by accident. Katherine aspired to be a scriptwriter, and trained at Leiths so she could earn a living as a cook while writing. Before being ‘discovered’ by Debbie, she worked for a film location caterer, a job that provided a good insight into life on set.

Katherine was particularly thrilled to work on the recently released Pride & Prejudice with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. She prepared homely meals in abundance for the Bennet household: great bowls of vegetable potage, cold hams and griddle cakes. In contrast, meals for Judi Dench’s character, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, were more showy dinners with a formal table groaning under ribs of beef, tongue in aspic and extravagant raised pies. “Understanding the social and culinary etiquette of the day is important,” explains Katherine. “Georgian meals in grander homes were all about ostentatious display.”

But the most fun she’s had on set was the food fight in the film Nanny McPhee, starring Emma Thompson and Colin Firth. Katherine’s task was to create the most over-the-top yet aerodynamic spread imaginable: impressive pastry shells filled with lurid pink artificial cream that made the most pleasing splat. “It was a riot,” she recalls. “The cast and crew had so much fun they couldn’t resist lobbing cakes, even when not in shot!”

Tricks of the trade

  • Hairspray is sprayed on herbs to stop them wilting

  • Glucose syrup is spritzed on to food to give that ‘just-cooked’ glisten

  • ‘Oysters’ are likely to be poached oyster mushrooms, turned upside down and placed in scrubbed shells

  • Marmite, Angostura bitters and  washing-up liquid give chickens a perfectly roasted look

  • Chickens are often boned and re-filled with a soft ‘stuffing’ of mashed potato for easy carving and swift, safe swallowing on set

  • Vegetables and fruit are ‘shrivelled’ in the microwave to look more period – blemish-free supermarket produce doesn’t even look right in the movies

  • Lots of vegetables are concealed behind the meat on the plate – though most period food is meat-based, few Hollywood stars will touch it and vegetables are easier to digest

  • Icing sugar and steam is puffed through plates pierced with holes to make cold food look piping-hot.

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