The first time director Scott Hicks walked into the busy kitchen of Fiamma Osteria in New York to do research for No Reservations he was in shock.
"There were huge boiling pots; there were fires; there was heat. And the noise level . . . I thought, there's so much going on. It's total chaos!"
As Hicks began visiting other kitchens and spending time with chef Michael White, the director relaxed. Especially when he learned that those people shouting orders at each other and all that frenetic activity is orchestrated by the executive chef.
"It was a real challenge to understand, but I wanted to learn every nuance of a restaurant kitchen because I would be re-creating a world," says Hicks, an Academy Award nominee for Shine.
It also helped him to realize how the entire operation rests of the shoulders of his main character, Kate, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Hicks carefully set about creating a menu for his fictitious 5-star French restaurant to reflect what a chef of that caliber would prepare. He called upon Lee Anne Wong, executive chef of event operations at the French Culinary Institute in New York, to audition her signature dishes.
And so Hicks would arrive at the institute and be treated to an array of delights most of us only dream about - Seared Diver Scallops with Saffron Emulsion and Butter Poached Lobster.
But while the enthralled director was inhaling alluring aromas and waxing rhapsodic about the poetry of Wong's dishes, all prop master Diana Burton could think about was . . . butter. It would be her job to make the food for the movie.
In the film, Kate, executive chef at 22 Bleecker, asks her new sous chef Nick (Aaron Eckhart) - in one of her haughty tests to see if he's the real deal - "What's the most important ingredient in French cuisine?"
Nick says, "Butter . . . butter . . . and . . . butter."
But butter would melt under the lights, so olive oil was substituted for the camera.
Hicks thought it was important that the actors taste Wong's dishes so they could play their roles with authenticity, so Burton, fresh off a season serving manicotti and cannoli to Tony Soprano, re-created them for the cast.
"In the film when I was begging Kate to tell me the secret of her saffron sauce (Kaffir lime), I felt a sense of urgency because I had just tasted it and it was soooo delicious," Eckhart says.
Burton knew that after she served the carefully re-created dishes to the stars, her job would switch to producing them no less than 15 times. It wouldn't matter what they tasted like. They just had to be piping hot and look beautiful. Most were never eaten.
Burton did create real food for the "diners" at 22 Bleecker. That's why they all had those satisfied smiles.
In order to play an executive chef and a sous chef, the actors spent months in the kitchens of Josiah Citrin, chef-owner of Melisse French restaurant in Santa Monica, and Michael White at Fiamma.
White sat behind Hicks during filming, checking every move anyone made in the kitchen. He showed Eckhart how to keep his knuckles back so he wouldn't cut his fingers and how to bend his knees so his back wouldn't give out after long hours on the unyielding cement floor of the professional kitchen.
"I practiced at home - fun things like sauteing popcorn in a pan so it jumps. It seems like the hardest job in the world because you have to be so precise," he says. "Catherine is definitely the better cook; she loved buzzing around the kitchen. Of course, she's the executive chef."
Zeta-Jones took her licks in the kitchen, too, and she also waited tables at Fiamma on a busy Saturday.
"She'd take out a dish, deliver it to the table and then come running back into the kitchen for more," White says. "Sometimes she'd be annoyed. 'Some people are so rude,' she'd tell me."
But not everybody.
After she presented one customer with his order of lamb, he looked up at her flirtatiously and said, "You know, you look a lot like Catherine Zeta-Jones."
Cool as a cucumber the spurious server retorted, "You know, I get that all the time."
"With a straight face Catherine demurely walked back into the kitchen and cracked up," White says.
Beverly Levitt is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.