Serving Steven Spielberg, Storing Guns N' Roses' Drugs: Tales of a Hollywood Caterer (Guest Column)
Paul Hibler, owner of hot Venice restaurant Superba, on how he built his red-hot catering business and served "Titanic," "Men in Black," "Godzilla" and "What Dreams May Come" at the same time.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When I first got into film catering in 1984, the guys doing it were still all of these old union guys who'd worked on Westerns with John Wayne. It was very pedestrian cafeteria stuff. But the dining scene was exploding here in L.A. in the '80s, and I was ready to do something new.
I'd been cooking in restaurants since I was 13 years old, up in Northern California. I went to Stanford and tried to escape it. Then a girl I was dating signed me up to be an extra on Rob Reiner's The Sure Thing, shooting in Stockton. I ended up chatting up the guys on the catering truck about breakfast burritos. A week later, those guys split up, and they hand me the keys and I come down to L.A. and end up working on a Richard Pryor movie and never make it back to Stanford.
The big moment, though, was when I started Deluxe Catering in 1990 with a chef named David Sanfield. Enough with "Hamburger Day": We wanted to revolutionize the way things were done -- bring on kids trained at the Culinary Institute of America, source ethnic-food ingredients. Our first film was this indie, Roadside Prophets. We were serving jerk chicken with plantains in the desert to Arlo Guthrie, Timothy Leary and Adam Horovitz from the Beastie Boys. They were into it, but the technicians and grips and drivers weren't quite ready. They were like, "Whaaa?!"
It was like that everywhere. On our second movie, an epic called Freejack, shooting in Atlanta, the whole bottom of the crew was from the South. We came out of the box with beautiful black grouper with cilantro pesto. I thought they were going to lynch us. "What's this green shit on my fish?" They wanted RC Cola for breakfast and canned and larded everything -- and nothing to do with our fresh peach cobblers and farmers market green beans. The star, Mick Jagger, couldn't have been nicer.
Eventually we became pretty hot. We'd have people -- directors like Paul Thomas Anderson, producers like Cathy Konrad -- who'd become successful and brought us along with them as their budgets grew. Our fleet got up to four trucks, with one parked up in Washington for the entire run of Northern Exposure. Of course, it's all relationship-driven, and our competitors each had their big clients. Top Hat was put on the map with the Pirates movies. For Stars was written into Tom Cruise's contract. I had Jim Cameron and Steven Spielberg.
It was always interesting. Guns N' Roses hid their drugs on our kitchen truck during the filming of their "November Rain" video. Ben Stiller used to insist on compartmented plates so the different foods wouldn't touch.
The high-water mark was 1997. We did Titanic, Men in Black, Godzilla and What Dreams May Come all at once. Titanic itself was a year in Mexico. We'd send a 40-foot truck twice a week across the border with local ingredients, served 700 people a day and installed a triple-osmosis plant for washing dishes. We didn't want anyone getting sick.
Then the air just went out of the balloon overnight: runaway productions, the recession. Besides, when you're on a movie set, you're getting there hours earlier than everyone so you can have their hot coffee ready -- and not having any union protection at all. I tapped out. Besides, I could only serve so many meals on a Samsonite chair in a parking lot in the middle of the night in winter.
We decided to start and expand our fast-casual concept, Pitfire Pizza, instead. These days, I see people from my days as a caterer at Pitfire and my new place here in Venice, Superba, all the time -- stars and directors and producers and crew. I always tell them the same thing: I escaped!