Hollywood caterer Bonnie Belknap talks proudly of the day when a $3,500 banquet she had meticulously prepared blew up. It happened last year on the movie set of Dragnet as make-believe mobsters chowed down on lobsters in a Belknap-produced 10-foot-long seafood buffet. Heaps of shrimps, oysters, turkey, pâté, veggies and fruit jostled for space around a curvaceous mermaid, carved from ice, that served as a centerpiece. Suddenly, rival gangsters burst onto the scene with machine guns blazing. To simulate bullet impact, dozens of tiny explosive charges salted in the food went off like cherry bombs. “The ice, the shrimp, the apples, the bananas went flying,” Belknap recalls with a smile. “I was ecstatic.”
Belknap, 29, is not your average caterer. She is in the business of supplying food that’s fit to be shot—filmed through a camera lens, that is. Her four-year-old firm, Gourmet Proppers Ltd., produces eye-appealing culinary creations to meet the needs of movie and TV scripts at fees that run from $300 for an intimate dinner setup into the thousands for elaborate buffets. What film producers choose to do with the prop food is not her concern. Neither is cleaning up afterward. “No way,” she says of the Dragnet mess. “That wasn’t in the contract.”
Belknap, whose credits range from Broadcast News to L.A. Law, works on as many as eight film and TV productions in a single week, fulfilling prop masters’ and set decorators’ requests for everything from wedding cakes to Hawaiian luaus. When cooking for the camera, she says, how food looks is often more important than how it tastes. She blanches vegetables just long enough to bring out their best color, and everything is coated with an industrial-strength aspic or gelatin glaze to make the food shine and to protect it for hours, sometimes days, under hot lights. Not surprisingly, she discourages people on the set from munching on her masterpieces after the shoot. “It may look great,” she says, “but you never know.”
Some scripts, of course, call for foods to be eaten on the spot, and Belknap goes to great lengths to please. She has produced flourless, sugarless cakes to accommodate a diabetic actor and, at the other extreme, piled on extra icing for The Hunchback of UCLA, a chocoholic, to bury his face in. For Jeff Goldblum’s new film Earth Girls Are Easy, in which hungry space aliens stop by the planet for a snack, Bonnie crafted edible hair curlers, records and a TV remote-control device out of chocolate and marzipan. And in a Matt Houston episode a couple of years ago that called for actors to munch on lizards, Belknap cleverly carved substitute critters out of pieces of steak.
In the world of real on-camera food, says Belknap, Dynasty’s Joan Collins “demands the best, and gets it”—including caviar omelets, baby lamb chops and salmon. The only other time that Belknap can remember a producer springing for Beluga caviar was for Liz Taylor’s 1984 guest appearance on Hotel.
The second oldest of four children born to a doctor’s family in Portland, Ore., Belknap showed no special promise in the kitchen as a kid. But while studying English and anthropology at the University of Oregon and Portland State, she casually took up cooking as a way to entertain her classmates. A family friend in Portland, who is a food writer, eventually steered her to the Tante Marie cooking school in San Francisco, after which Belknap settled in L.A. in 1983. Within weeks of her arrival there, she was introduced to the prop master of TV’s Love Boat series and prepared a couple of on-camera spreads as a trial run. She did so well that she spent the next three years as the queen of buffet until the show went into dry dock. By then, however, Belknap was well established in the other outposts of mega-producer Aaron Spelling’s television empire, including Dynasty, Matt Houston and The Colbys.
“I read cookbooks the way other people read novels,” says Bonnie, who now works out of a 1,200-square-foot commercial kitchen in North Hollywood. She calls on a cadre of freelance chefs for assistance but personally oversees every job and runs prop foods to location in her Toyota mini-van. The combination of odd hours and overemployment, she says, has left her little time for socializing; her spare-time activities include a daily jog in her Sherman Oaks neighborhood and an occasional Sunday afternoon at Malibu Beach.
Up to now, Belknap hasn’t wanted to co-star on TV with her food creations. She was once asked to be an extra on a kitchen segment of Dynasty, but stage fright did her in: “I couldn’t sleep the night before, and I had this rash all over my chest and neck, so I couldn’t go through with it.” Yet, vicariously, she has felt the pangs that actors feel when their best work lands on the cutting room floor. “I spend days researching or working on a buffet or a period piece, and then there’s maybe 30 seconds of it on film,” she laments. “You just can’t take it that personally, I guess.”