Mara Kerum is a star at feeding stars
Lights! Camera! Food!
Chef-caterer Mara Kerum is a star at feeding movie crews. In her latest role,
she cooked for the cast and crew of 'Ladder 49.'
By Francine Halvorsen
Special To The Sun
Originally published July 9, 2003
For the last three months, some of the best food in this city was not served in
a restaurant but from the sides of catering trucks.
Grilled swordfish and mango salsa, fillet of beef with bearnaise sauce, pasta
primavera, Caesar salads, Key lime pie, fresh fruit tarts and chocolate
brownies were among the tempting dishes prepared for the stars, cast and crew
of Ladder 49, the action movie starring John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix,
which wrapped up shooting last week.
The chef behind these creations was Mara Kerum, 34, who has been feeding actors
and production crews on location for 15 years.
Kerum, a native of Croatia who attended culinary school at France's Le Cordon
Bleu, oversaw a team of five chefs feeding 200 to 300 people a day, five days a
"I have the perfect job in the food business. I love what I do. I get to make
creative food for people who really appreciate it," said Kerum, who works for
Tony's Catering, a company her uncle, Tony Kerum, started in California 20
Her credits include catering movies starring Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis and
Robert De Niro.
Cooking for movie stars isn't all glamour and glitz, however. Extremes of rain
and cold, heat and humidity, surprising delays and changes of location are
constants. But Kerum is never frazzled, always the quiet center in the middle
of the daily whirlwind.
Ten days before the movie about firefighters started filming in mid-March,
Kerum and her crew drove a caravan of trucks across the country from
Chatsworth, Calif., to Baltimore.
One truck was equipped for cooking, another was refrigerated and the third
transported and stored equipment, including the biggest and best portable
grills available. Wood-grilled fish, poultry and meat are the company's
After arriving, Kerum lined up her purveyors and was happy to find that she
could get all the supplies she needed in Baltimore.
"It is a pleasure working here because I can accommodate everyone," she
said. "It makes it much easier when you have good resources."
Within a couple of weeks, she and her crew had learned everyone's name and food
preferences. On this set, there were no personal chefs, so while the stars may
have eaten in their trailers, they ate the same food as the rest of the cast
"Hands down, she is the best in the business," said Ladder 49 publicist Peter
Silbermann. "The meals are always delicious and if you aren't in the mood for
one thing, there is always something else that's perfect -- an embarrassment of
Kerum was given a standing ovation by 200 people at the wrap party given at Red
Tapas last week. Her fans included director Jay Russell and Travolta who, she
said, is fond of her beef Wellington.
The caterers usually began work three hours before the actors were on the set.
That meant starting anywhere from 4 a.m. until noon, and often working 16-hour
days serving two meals.
When their day was done, they drove the trucks to the back lot of a large hotel
where a hired crew washed the dishes so everything was ready for the next day.
As daunting as Maryland summers may be, Kerum said her worst catering
experience was with the film Six Days, Seven Nights in Hawaii several years ago.
"We would load the trucks and start going down a single-lane road to the beach
where Harrison Ford and Anne Heche were working," she said. "If we met a truck
coming up, we had to back up and let them get to the top before we could go
down and feed the crew. That was rough. There are places that are physically
hard but I don't take obstacles seriously anymore."
Kerum said she isn't star-struck. "I treat them all the same, Clint Eastwood,
Bruce Willis, Robert De Niro. ... " Her voice dropped; clearly, she didn't want
to be name-dropping.
So what does John Travolta like to eat? She smiled, "John, Mr. Travolta, will
eat a little bit of everything. Beef Wellington, crab cakes with remoulade,
chicken cordon bleu. I have cooked for him before. He is very good-natured. He
doesn't like garlic and neither do I, so I don't use it." Phoenix is a vegan
who liked the steamed vegetables, salads and pasta dishes, she said.
Daily breakfast was early, fresh and eye-opening. She served coffee and tea,
Danish, bagels, muffins, toast, cereal, various spreads, eggs and meat, cheese,
fruit and yogurt. The main meal was always served five hours after breakfast,
whatever the hour.
One day, the steam table was set up with ravioli and pesto, steamed vegetables,
stewed tomatoes, roasted potatoes and rice, shrimp and vegetable kebabs and
Hiro Fan, a Japanese-Vietnamese chef with 12 years of experience, served sushi
and sashimi on iced trays. Yellowtail, tuna, salmon, eel, crab, shrimp, egg and
avocado and all sorts of authentic goodies were served in traditional forms,
rolled in seaweed and rice and served with pickled ginger and wasabi mustard.
Adjacent to this food station was an enormous cold buffet table with a chilled
assortment of Mediterranean pasta salad, Greek salad, fresh tossed green salad,
jellied fruit salad and plates of fresh tomatoes, cheeses and olives.
For dessert there were chocolate-dipped strawberries, coconut flan, pecan pie
and fresh fruit salad -- all made from scratch.
On another day, it was 95 degrees out and very humid. Two wood-burning grills
were being stoked in front of the trucks.
Kerum was making lamb and vegetable kebabs and grilling polenta squares, which
she served with a thick portobello-mushroom sauce. Another chef was grilling
halibut fillets, dressed with a sweet and spicy pepper jelly.
The crowds lined up and took their trays inside the set where they sat eating
at large round tables. Soon they would move on to their next project, some
together, most individually, but at the moment, the camaraderie was palpable.
Now that the filming has ended, Karem and the culinary crew are taking a few
weeks off and then they will drive the truck caravan to Tampa Bay, Fla., where
they will prepare meals for the movie The Punisher, starring Travolta and
Baltimore native Thomas Jane.
Perhaps if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ever adds catering
to its list of award categories, an Oscar should go to Tony's Catering, with a
special recognition to Mara Kerum, star chef.
She surely lent a creative hand when it came to the making of so many major
Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun