Abigail Breslin is perched on the edge of a stainless-steel kitchen counter, legs dangling off the side, an oversized white ceramic bowl of spaghetti balanced in her lap.
For the past 20 minutes, the tween actress (an Oscar nominee for Little Miss Sunshine) has been slurping down umpteen portions of lukewarm pasta while shooting a scene for the romantic comedy No Reservations (opening Friday). Playing an orphan sent to live with her top-chef aunt (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Breslin is currently digging into a heap of yummy noodles whipped up by the film’s saucy sous-chef (Aaron Eckhart). But there’ll be no tummy aches on this afternoon in New York City in April 2006. Breslin is blessed with the appetite (and metabolism) of a grown man — she keeps shoveling spaghetti into her mouth until director Scott Hicks (Shine), pleased with the number of basil stems left peeking from the bowl, finally calls cut.
Hopping to her feet, the young star trots across the set to her waiting mother and Curious George doll, before confiding conspiratorially, ”The food’s good, even if it has become” — finger quotations — ”room temperature.”
Eating is all in a day’s work on the set of No Reservations, Hicks’ reimagining of the 2002 German-language film Mostly Martha, a cinematic ode to love and haute cuisine. Though they swap Hamburg for Manhattan’s West Village, Hicks and screenwriter Carol Fuchs remain faithful to the original plot, in which two lonely ladies find each other through the power of family and good grub.
As it turns out, Hicks is a bit of a foodie himself (he and his wife/producer, Kerry Heysen, own a 150-acre vineyard back home in Australia), and he made every effort to ensure the authenticity of his film’s kitchen scenes. The director hired real chefs and cooking students to prepare every meal seen onscreen (although, without SAG cards, they’re forbidden from actually delivering any lines). He brought aboard celebrated New York chef Michael White to advise Zeta-Jones and Eckhart on their slicing and dicing techniques. And he spared no expense regarding the quality of the stuff sizzling on the stoves. The production budget includes an average of $7,000 to $10,000 per week on food — a sum that contains $1,000 per day on vegetables, in order to capture the produce at five varying stages of ripeness — although, as cameras roll, fancy foie gras is replaced by, yep, stunt Spam.
For today’s shoot, the working kitchen — located adjacent to the set kitchen at Silvercup Studios in Queens — is in full swing. Chefs and prop masters are cutting avocadoes, zesting limes and lemons, freezing cream puffs, poaching pears, and of course, simmering all that pasta for Breslin to chow on.
”The set is absolutely unbelievable,” says Eckhart, relaxing in a white chef’s jacket, black-and-white checkered pants, and slipped-on Crocs, during a break in shooting. ”From the pans down to the grime, it’s just fantastic. And the consulting chefs are rock stars.” He would know: In addition to working with White, Eckhart also trained at the Santa Monica restaurant Mélisse for several months prior to shooting. ”I had absolute carte blanche around the kitchen,” he says. ”I would chop for them. I would fillet their fish. Just got the feel of the kitchen.” Not that he learned to, you know, actually cook. ”For most people, the most common association to chef is chopping, so I think that if as long as we show one scene of me and Catherine chopping accurately, then we win.”
Ditto for Zeta-Jones, who confesses that her cooking lessons are more for aesthetic reasons than for real life. ”I mean, if I was playing a brain surgeon, could I actually do brain surgery? I don’t think so,” she says. ”At least that’s what I tell my husband.” But she’s fallen in love with the process. ”For somebody who doesn’t cook, I have so many cookbooks. I used to like looking at the pictures, but now I like looking at the procedure.”
Ultimately, though, the culinary student with the best retention seems to be Breslin. “I learned to prepare a yummy carrot ginger soup, and pancakes with bananas and blueberries,” she says. “I especially like peeling things like carrots and potatoes.” Hey, anybody looking for an 11-year-old, Oscar-nominated sous-chef?