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Playing With Food : Cuisine du Cinema

Meg McCord is just putting the finishing touches on a wedding feast. Inside a huge double-tented dining area with a dance floor, she and her assistants have assembled a 16-foot display that groans with a four-tiered wedding cake, sparkling crystal, snaking herbs and baby ivy.

It looks fabulous--display perfectly balanced, amaryllis heads artfully scattered, light and dark in delicious chiaroscuro.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Aug. 15, 1991 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 15, 1991 Home Edition Food Part H Page 45 Column 1 Food Desk 1 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
Correct Identity--In “Cuisine du Cinema,” (Food, Aug. 8), food stylist Meg McComb was incorrectly identified as Meg McCord.

Suddenly all hell breaks loose. This is the set of “Father of the Bride,” and now word comes down--the director tells the assistant, who tells the propmaster, who finally tells McCord--that the camera is catching 32 feet of table in the master shot, not the 16 that were planned.

The script called for an upscale Pasadena wedding reception for 200. McCord’s job was to make it look right--for less than it would cost in real life (about 40% less). McCord and her two assistants have “fluffed” the display of buffet food to within an inch of its life. (Fluffing is an important concept in food styling; surfers “tweak,” food people “fluff.”) Now they need to do more.

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The naked half of the table has to be fixed up. McCord has no more food prepared. She has no more money. She has 25 minutes.

Rule No. 1: Never tell the director something can’t be done. Rule No. 2: Get off on your adrenaline. “It may not look it,” McCord grimaces, “but I love this. What can I do to make it happen-- now?

Movie food stylists are different from ordinary food stylists. The latter make their living making almost-raw turkeys and rubber mousses look ravishing in ads. Movie food stylists, on the other hand, make their living making food that looks great hour after hour--and tastes good too. Styling for the movies requires real food, real preparation, visual sophistication--everything but the subtle herbs, the dash of cassis, the dressing on the salad that mean a lot to the taste but are invisible to the camera.

The food must be real food that real people can actually eat--take, after take, after take, after take. When McCord styled the lamb chop scene for “War of the Roses,” Michael Douglas ended up nibbling his way through an entire standing rib roast before the director was satisfied with the scene. When McCord created the restaurant cuisine for Michelle Pfeiffer’s place in “Tequila Sunrise,” she served her on-camera customers food that actually tasted good, looked good and could be shot all day long.

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So why not just hire a caterer? Well, McCord’s not adverse to the odd catering job (she’s just given a $30,000 estimate for a real wedding)--and she’s a renowned cook. She’s director Sidney Pollack’s private chef. And she came into her career as a stylist through the kitchen.

In 1979 she was chef and co-owner of one of L.A.'s first Northern Italian restaurants, Mangia. “Piero Selvaggio,” says McCord, “took Mangia, our baby, and sent it to a wonderful Italian finishing school. He made it a really slick joint.” The restaurant is now called Primi, but it still services the same clientele: studio people. “They’re the first to try anything new,” says McCord, “and they have the biggest mouths, once they find something they like.”

From feeding movie people to feeding people in movies was a leap. After Mangia, McCord did private catering for the Robert Townes--he wrote “Chinatown.” Mrs. Towne, Piero Selvaggio’s ex, suggested McCord for “Tequila Sunrise"--he also wrote “Tequila Sunrise.” It was her first screen credit. She worked under Academy Award winning production designer Richard Sylbert. “Valanari’s was strikingly similar to Valentino’s, where I was the pastry chef . . . take it from there.”

McCord got into movie food styling at an interesting time. Until the mid-80s, American food wasn’t freighted with much socio-psychological baggage. But the “cuisine mini” in Steve Martin’s “L.A. Story” had audiences laughing out loud. And McCord’s spreads for “Bonfire of the Vanities,” reflected the Age of Greed’s obsession with a cuisine as expensive as couture. A character’s food fetishes are now another way of expressing character.

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McCord knows instinctively, after 15 minutes with the propmaster and script, exactly what sort of cook Diane Keaton will be in “Father of the Bride,” and how she uses her Pasadena kitchen.

From her experience with private catering, she knows how characters act in the kitchen. “The nouveau rich, with these huge 1500-square-foot kitchens, are absolutely paranoid that a caterer will make the kitchen look used, so they’ll have this huge beautiful kitchen and put the caterer in the 10-car garage. They want their guests to see where the money has gone, to see the Wolf range and the beautiful marble slabs. The kitchen always has to look like it’s ready for a photo shoot from “Architectural Digest.”

But these San Marino women use their kitchens: They have kids, a family life. So for “Father of the Bride” I knew Diane Keaton was a good home cook. Now good home cooks have two styles: Neat and messy. And when her kitchen showed, I wanted the food preparation to look right. I wanted input from the director, but there wasn’t time. So I guessed it from her decorating style, and from the actor’s style. I mean Diane Keaton does not usually play a neat, ordinary person.”

What makes McCord different from other movie food stylists is that she is the only one in L.A. who demands an on-set kitchen. Other food stylists prepare the food in rented kitchens, called commissaries, and truck it to the set, but McCord keeps a complete kitchen kit in her trunk.

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She started the day of the “Father of the Bride” shoot at 5 a.m. at the City Produce Market at Olympic and Wall. She bought fresh vegetables, greens, purple beans, melons and flats of berries from the Northwest. She’s worked on the food all day. So now, with only minutes to double the size of the spread, McCord is prepared.

Out come a few hidden flats of blackberries, blueberries, raspberries. Out come boxes of melons, already beautifully cut in a zigzag pattern, covered with cellophane and aged to a camera-ready glow. Now an assistant scoops out the seeds and arranges the melons into luscious still-lives.

Tight little heads of Belgian endive sit waiting in their wooden crates. As the clock ticks down, McCord’s assistants dance around the buffet, deploying cartons and crates and cardboard and cellophane, peeling down the endive in the midst of grips, prop men, best boys, first and second assistant cameras . . . fighting the clock as the camera noses toward them.

Within minutes, 16 feet of buffet begins to materialize. On silver platters dark berries are interlaced with endive leaves so that they look like fabulous starflowers. The texture, color and depth may look swell on silver, but you wouldn’t want them for dessert.

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The triangular tricolor “ribbon sandwiches” from yesterday’s hors d’oeuvres tray are wedged into a crystal cornucopia and brought in to double as exotic desserts. Recipe? White bread, pumpernickel (it “shoots as black” on film) with a cream cheese filling, tinted either a bright pink or a bright green. “Visually stunning,” says McCord--and you could eat them in a crunch.

She stuffs silver Revere bowls with cellophane, then tops it with huge red strawberries sprinkled with blueberries. Assistants rush to “drizzle” tiny raspberries across melon halves, and more baby-ivy tendrils are made to snake around the displays.

The four-level cake is cut and cut, and cut some more, then the slices are laid out on individual plates and spread around the table. Crystal vases are clumped together to lend shape, and melons are propped up on leftover berry boxes, mashed to fit. “The less I have to work with, the better I do,” gasps McCord. As the huge camera trundles in her direction, she jumps back, wipes her hands and declares that the “Fluff Crisis” is over.

A fleeting smile crosses her face, not unlike Babette’s in McCord’s favorite movie, “Babette’s Feast.” “ ‘Babette’ was an incredible picture of this art,” says McCord. “And Babette’s smile was a wonderfully conscious film-maker’s command of that incredibly ephemeral moment--that moment when you yourself are completely content with your art.”

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