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 week.
"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 years ago.
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 specialties.
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 and crew.
"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 riches."
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 roast beef.
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 motion pictures.
Mediterranean Pasta Salad
Makes 10 servings (or more)
1 pound farfalle (or any medium-sized pasta such as rigatoni)
1/4 cup olive oil
pinch of salt
12 ounces frozen artichoke hearts (drained marinated artichoke hearts may be substituted)
2 ounces sun-dried tomatoes
12 ounces ricotta cheese
approximately 8 ounces smoked mozzarella cheese, diced
1/4 pound pitted black olives, sliced
1 medium red onion, in small dice
1/2 cup Italian parsley, minced
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
salt and pepper to taste
Boil pasta until it's al dente according to package directions. Drain and run under cold water. Pat dry with paper towel and place in bowl large enough to hold all ingredients.
Toss with 1/4 cup olive oil and pinch of salt. Bring artichoke hearts to a boil, lower heat and simmer for 3 minutes. Drain and add to pasta. Place sun-dried tomatoes in a heat-proof bowl and cover with boiling water. Let stand 5 minutes and drain.
Mince tomatoes and stir into pasta. Stir in ricotta, mozzarella, olives, red onion and parsley. In a small cup stir olive oil, vinegar and sugar. Pour over salad and toss. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover and place in refrigerator to chill.