From humble food truck to feeding Benedict Cumberbatch

It started with a borrowed van and a fridge in the garage, and now mobile catering company Doof Doof makes breakfast for movie stars. The couple behind the business talk to Jane Phare about the hard graft that goes on behind the scenes in the screen industry.

The Doof Doof headquarters are unusually quiet. Covid-19, lockdowns, border closures and clogged MIQ of course. It’s hit the TV and film industry hard – not only the actors and producers, but the hundreds of Kiwi businesses and thousands of workers who earn a crust from the screen sector.

The owners of Doof Doof (“food” spelt backwards), Jo Warren, 45, and Mark Reihana, 52, aren’t too worried. It’s given them time to regroup and for Reihana, chef extraordinaire and company maintenance man, time to service equipment and do oil changes and rustproofing on the five massive trucks that he’s fitted out with state-of-the-art kitchens.

They’ve all got names: Lady Penelope, Galactica, Mr Miyagi, Tonto and Phantom. Galactica, their first truck, took Reihana nine months to fit out. He rebuilt the skin and the floor, then fitted a commercial kitchen – plenty of stainless steel bench space, ovens, fridges and commercial dishwashers.

Then along came “a grease truck” with Japanese writing all over it. This time it took him just 10 weeks to transform Mr Miyagi into a gleaming catering truck. Each time the couple landed a big movie job, they’d buy another truck and Reihana got better at fitting them out.

“It was tricky,” Warren says. “The banks didn’t want to lend to us, we were not a good bet according to them.”

They had to build up the business piece by piece until they had 17 vehicles, including the 11.5-metre trucks. From one of those trucks the Doof Doof team can dish out 600 meals a day, food so delicious that it’s talked about in the industry. Reihana scoffs at MasterChef. More like DisasterChef, he says. All that stuffing around to produce two dishes on TV.

“Mucking around costs money,” he says. “In three hours we can have done 900 people.”

Working in TV and film is a hardcore environment, he says. The pressure is far greater than in a busy restaurant. Time is the enemy when you’re cooking for hundreds of people in the wops. Forget glamorous moments, he says, or rubbing shoulders with famous actors. Ask for a selfie with Benedict Cumberbatch and you’re gone.

Reihana fondly describes his staff as a “bunch of pirates” who all bring different skills to the job. They’re a tough lot. Think (very) early starts, long hours, hard work, the ability to think outside the square when things go wrong. And they do go wrong, like the generator failing an hour before lunch is due to be served to 200 people or the compostable plates that aren’t delivered to a (very) remote location.

Reihana laughs now at the memory of the plates and disappears off to fetch a large crate rattling with stacks of antique china. The Doof Doof team were cooking for Jane Campion’s Netflix movie The Power of the Dog, deep in Otago’s Maniototo region, when Reihana realised the plates hadn’t turned up and it was 56km to the nearest supermarket.

So he drove to the tiny town of Becks – on the Otago Rail Trail – and asked White Horse Hotel publican Karen George for help. She also owned Glory Box Antiques in the town and was on the community hall committee. What about these, she suggested, lugging out a crate of china saucers and plates once used in the pub and the hall.

Reihana bought the lot for $150, ensuring that Cumberbatch and co-star Kirsten Dunst ate breakfast off Crown Lynn and afternoon tea off fine bone English china.

Back in Auckland, Warren juggles logistics, handles the admin, plans the next job and liaises with an at-times demanding clientele, including expecting 37 different dietary requirements to be catered for among the hundreds of meals served daily. She’ll order in a pallet of canola oil and it’ll be gone in two weeks. She’s lost count of the thousands of eggs and hash browns that have been ordered and consumed.

The husband-and-wife team met in 2000 on the set of TV series Xena: Warrior Princess. He was a chef and a former butcher, she was not long out of film school working as a third assistant director on the set.

By the time they set up Doof Doof in 2007, Warren was an assistant director and Reihana knew there was a catering hole he could fill. It was the director of Xena who suggested the name Doof Doof when he heard of their plans.

Using a borrowed van, an oven and a fridge in their garage, Reihana and Warren catered for their first job, a small Disney production called Johnny Kapahala: Back on Board. The movie wasn’t particularly memorable but it was a start.

Since then they’ve worked on location with the big ones including Amazon’s Lord of the Rings, The Meg, Spartacus, Mulan, the Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon sequel,Greenstone, Ash vs Evil Dead, Sweet Tooth and The Luminaries. When they find themselves short-handed on Auckland jobs, the couple’s two children, Mia, 17, and Bruno, 13, pitch in and help.

This year Doof Doof served up hundreds of meals to the crew of the Netflix series Cowboy Bebop, a live-action version of the Japanese animated science fiction series, which premiered yesterday. The 10-episode season was largely filmed in various Auckland regional locations including several parks, Onehunga Wharf, Auckland Museum, St Matthew-in-the-City and a number of inner-city streets. And everywhere the crew went, the Doof Doof catering truck followed.

They’ve even sent their catering trucks on barges to Fiji twice to cater for the 2018 survival movie Adrift and 2016 comedy parody Wrecked, starring Kiwi actor Rhys Darby. Reihana thought catering in Fiji would be a bit of a challenge, and it was.

But then movies like The Power of the Dog have their challenges too, because of the remote locations. Jane Campion wanted to replicate the vast, empty plains, hills and mountains of Montana. That meant the Otago stations used were miles from a supply chain so foodhad to be trucked in from Dunedin, Queenstown, Alexandra and “all the rural towns in between”.

Local suppliers wouldn’t travel out to the locations so Reihana arranged with publican Knobby Clarke to park a truck with a fridge out the back of his Lauder Hotel. The suppliers would fill the truck and the Doof Doof crew, staying in a large farmhouse, would go each morning to collect what they needed.

The locals were brilliant, Reihana says. A Henderson couple who had moved to the South Island to run the superette at Omakau made dozens of spicy vegetarian samosas for almost 80 people on the set who were vegetarians or vegans. A bakery at Alexandra baked hundreds of pies and loaves of focaccia bread. Kilos of stonefruit came from Cromwell: poached nectarines for breakfast, peach pie for dessert.

The sheer scale of the job, the size of the crew and the conditions made catering a challenge.

“It was the middle of winter, freezing cold. You’ve got hundreds of people there,” Reihana says.

Serving breakfast meant getting out of bed in the early hours to load the trucks, get on site and start cooking. Waffles, French toast, eggs – more than 700 a day – congee with fried bread, it has to come out fast, hot and tasting good. And for lunch, fresh grilled snapper with a crispy green salad for lunch, out the back of a truck.

In any one week there’ll be sticky pork ribs, Guinness beef ragout with thyme dumplings, sweet and sour squid salad, cauliflower tabouli, or baked risotto with peppers, olives and oregano.

“It all comes out of these trucks. We write some pretty crazy menus.”

The Doof Doof chefs make their own curry pastes and spices, They smoke chicken drumsticks, pork ribs and brisket in a 120kg smoker, and can cook 15 ducks in 45 minutes in a duck roaster. Nothing is wasted. Meat trimmings left over from a day’s catering are made into sausages.

When Covid-19 hit, Warren and Reihana were left with a business catering for a screen industry that in effect was shut down. Realising that the coronavirus was here to stay, they used that downtime to develop good Covid-proof systems. Staff wearing masks and gloves became the norm, and the open servery was done away with.

Now the cast and crew choose their food through clear screens – “like Subway,” Warren says – and point to what they want. Doof Doof staff put the food in boxes for contactless pick-up.

Pre Covid they could serve 150 people in 20 minutes. Now they’ll need more staff to serve the individual portions. Right now they’re down from 40 staff to 10 but they’ve got film and TV bookings pencilled in for next year. Business is looking promising.

“There is work coming but because the rest of the world is opening up and bouncing back there’s more competition.”

When the country and the borders do open, Warren and Reihana are prepared for what’s ahead. Reihana and his crew will be up in the early hours, loading gas bottles and supplies into the trucks and possibly setting off in different directions to film locations that could be 90 minutes away.

They’ll get there at 5.30am ready to serve breakfast to the cast and crew between 7am and 9am. But then there are the latecomers who still want breakfast at 10am or 11am, when the Doof Doof crew are trying to clean up, prepare lunch and order food for the next day.

The hour before lunch is “bedlam,” Reihana says. “There’s so much involved but I love it.”

In some cases the wardrobe, make-up, the art department and special effects teams will have been at work several hours before breakfast, preparing for the day’s shoot.Warren says many in the industry work “ridiculous” hours and she thinks that’s something that needs to change.

“It’s a tough gig and you have to be really dedicated to it. Lots of people just fall away because of it.”

Film industry eager to open for business

The New Zealand Film Commission’s chief executive David Strong is confident the industry will bounce back after Covid-19 restrictions that have kept film directors and cast from getting into the country, or moving across the Auckland border.

It’s been a rough few months for the businesses supporting the screen industry too, in an era when not even the premiere launch of The Power of the Dog could go ahead this month.

Strong wants to make sure that when the country is once again open for business, the film studios come back. He’s a strong advocate of the New Zealand Screen Production Grant (NZSPG) which allows a 20 per cent rebate on local spending for international productions and a 40 per cent rebate for New Zealand productions, or co-productions.

The NZSPG costs the Government hundreds of millions of dollars each year but he points out that the local spend goes directly into the economy.Without the rebate, screen production will go elsewhere, he warns. That happened when Australia dropped the incentives several years ago.

“They had a 95 per cent drop in production. It basically died and then they brought it back in again.”

Most of the budget that financed Campion’s The Power of the Dog was Netflix money, Strong says.

“We had a choice of whether Netflix wished to put that money into the American economy shooting in Montana or whether they wished to put it into the New Zealand economy,” he says.

The screen industry contributes $3.3 billion to the economy and employs around 15,000 Kiwis across the sector including TV, film, advertising, gaming, production and post-production.

“The key thing that we need to do is continue to make it easy for internationals to do business in New Zealand.”

The year ending March 2021 was a boom year with around 4000 crew working on productions at any one stage and international productions bringing in about $930m.
Strong’s not expecting next year’s result to be as high because of border closures, although a number of local productions have transferred their filming schedules to 2022.

Auckland Unlimited’s director of industry and investment, Pam Ford, says screen production is an important part of the region’s economy, contributing $606m to Auckland’s GDP in the year ending March 2020.

Ford doesn’t yet have the March 2021 figure but expects it to be considerably more. Her team administered a record 1000 permits to allow filming on public land last year compared with 635 permits for the year ending March 2020.

“So that’s an indicator of the amount of activity. Our permits have been almost zero for the last three months.”

As soon as New Zealand opens to the world, Ford is expecting those film industry scouts to return to look for locations.

“The global demand for television and film production continues to grow so it makes sense for us to have a piece of that pie.”

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