Chef Robért Catering Fighting for the “Little Guy” Impacted by Runaway Production
In 1990′s Dances With Wolves, audiences around the world were enchanted by the story of Lieutenant John J. Dunbar, a man who leaves the horrors of Civil War battlefields to find himself at a new post on the shrinking frontiers of the American West. In the process, the man once known as John J. Dunbar is transformed by life among Sioux Indians, who give Dunbar his new name: “Dances With Wolves.” While most people are familiar with this on-screen transformation, few are aware of the similar — if less cinematic — transformation that took place behind the cameras on the set of the Academy Award-winning film.
Joining the production of Dances With Wolves was Robert Lamkin, a young cook from San Francisco. While working on the production, the crew, inspired by one of Lamkin’s “on-set personalities”, assigned him a new name: Chef Robért. Over 20 years later, Chef Robért presides over his own 12-year-old business, Chef Robért Motion Picture & Television Catering and is one of Hollywood’s most in-demand caterers.
One of the reasons behind Chef Robért’s success could be how well-suited he is for working in the film and television industry. While many business executives would balk at the idea of starting a risky new business venture without so much as a business plan in place, Chef Robért embraced opportunity when had the chance. Tired of other people profiting from his hard work, Chef Robért decided to max out his credit cards and use money invested in the stock market to buy the basic equipment he needed, including a catering truck. It was a leap of faith with $180,000 of his own money at stake. But Chef Robért, a skydiving enthusiast, has never been afraid of making a jump. “We just hit the ground running,” Chef Robért said in an earlier interview, “only this time it was all on my own terms.”
Within just four years of starting his company, Chef Robért’s $180,000 start-up was earning revenues in excess of $1.5 million. Now, Chef Robért Motion Picture & Television Catering Company operates a fleet of state-of-the-art mobile kitchens and support trucks.
A big part of the reason Chef Robért is so successful is that the company operations mirror those of the clients it serves — namely film and television productions. The focus is not one of tunnel vision, it is one of adaptation and change. With the onset of generous tax incentives in Canada and other states, Chef Robért Catering is not just adapting to the changing needs of a large film production, but also a new economic and business climate shaped, in part, by runaway production. Several years ago, if a large film production hired another catering company, the stakes were not life and death because there was significantly more feature production activity to make up for the loss. This is no longer the reality.
When productions shoot out of state to save money, there are often hidden costs that do not appear on a bottom line. In many cases, productions that shoot in other states are compelled to hire local catering companies so the expense can be eligible for tax credits on payments to in-state businesses servicing the production. When such a cost is subsidized by 30-40%, it creates an artificial cost distortion that makes the services provided by California vendors like Chef Robért Catering more expensive. “Expensive by comparison, but not more expensive”, according to Chef Robért. “The workers in other states, they don’t have this business in their blood.” When Chef Robért does go out of state to service a production, as he did for the upcoming Transformers 3: Dark Side of the Moon, he finds that he is lucky if he can find one worker in fifty that can handle the incredibly long hours and shifting demands of a big-budget production.
And unlike local catering companies in places like Louisiana or New Mexico, Chef Robért knows how critical it is for cost-conscious producers and directors to have a well-oiled production crew. “There is an old saying that an army marches on its stomach, Chef Robért said. “Movie producers who hire us want their armies to march on stomachs that we fill. Invariably their armies are happier when we’re cooking.”
But if Chef Robért is bothered by how poorly the needs of productions are being met by out-of-state catering companies ill-equipped to handle Hollywood. He is gravely concerned about the impact runaway production is having in his Los Angeles community and the state of California generally. The concern is matched by a commitment to helping improve the community and those living it in it. For example, Chef Robért Catering is a supporter of the Boys & Girls Club of Hollywood and helped provide over 1,000 free Thanksgiving dinners to Club and community members in years past. Chef Robért Catering’s Principal Ray Bidenost also spearheads the company’s support of Encino-based Sisters of Social Services, which is committed to aiding and supporting “the poor and alienated” across the globe.
Film Works had the privilege of meeting with Chef Robért on the set of “Project 5″, which is a PSA campaign about breast cancer awareness. In visiting Chef Robért on the set, it was quickly apparent that he is much more interested in the concerns of the little guy impacted by Hollywood, not the glitz and the glamor. Runaway production is not hurting Hollywood celebrities and high-profile talent, according to Chef Robért. If a production leaves to shoot somewhere else, the celebrities are taken along and millions of dollars are poured into local economies of places like Shreveport rather than Los Angeles, Baton Rouge rather than San Francisco, or Atlanta rather than Sacramento.
When the discussion of the California Film and Television Tax Credit comes up, Chef Robért is bothered by critics who argue that it’s a wasteful handout to “help” high-paid Hollywood talent. “It does not benefit them [celebrities], it’s helping the little guy impacted by runaway production,” Chef Robért said. “It’s not about helping the star on the screen, it’s about helping the janitor about to get laid off because the local studio he works at needs to reduce costs because sound stages sit empty, and so on.” It’s the unseen benefits of production activity that Chef Robért thinks Californians and the state’s elected officials need to think about. When there are more productions in Los Angeles, the number of people Chef Robért is able to hire quickly swells from roughly 30 to about 60 and Chef Robért Catering can operate at full capacity. If things were to stay busy and the number of productions held steady or increased, it would allow businesses like Chef Robért Catering to keep growing. And when a company like Chef Robért Catering can expand, the financial benefit of having films shoot locally runs deep and impacts many.
Chef Robért Catering utilizes the services of dozens of other California companies like dry cleaning stores to wash uniforms, local grocery marts, local mechanics to service vehicles, not to mention the California farmers that benefit from providing the large amount of home-grown produce Chef Robért serves to California film crews. At Restaurant Depot superstore in Los Angeles, Chef Robért is the seventh largest customer in volume. The loss of film production activity is hurting Californians that may not have appreciated how much they were benefiting by it. Film Works could not agree more and is proud to count Chef Robért among its many supporters. And Chef, you were right: your chocolate chip cookies are the best we have EVER tasted. With cookies like those served on California sets, we have no doubt Film Works.