EXCLUSIVE: Thor Caterer Johnny Mikkelsen Talks Feeding the Gods!
The elusive chef offers his thoughts from the back of a food truck that frequented the lot where Marvel's summer epic was shot
Renown Chef and owner of the Steak and Strip food truck, which often prowls the outskirts of many Los Anegles hot spots and Hollywood back lots, Johnny Mikkelsen has been tasked with trying to get some of Marvel's most famous superheroes to try his delicious Gravel Steak, which is served off the side of a truck adorned with live Go-Go Dancers. He isn't sure, but he thinks most of the cast of Thor ate off his truck a least once or twice, as he had his now iconic Steak and Strip Airstream parked behind Paramount studios most of the time that Thor was in production.
To hear him tell it, no one eats steak quite like a Norse God, and he truly believes that Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston must have enjoyed his 'meat and girl' menu at least once in the last two years. Though, he was often too busy dealing with the backstage drama between his two star dancers to really ever notice.
We recently caught up with Johnny Mikkelsen to find out more about Thor and his magical food truck's presence on (or rather near) the set. Here is our conversation.
What has your experience feeding the cast and crew of Thor been like for you?
Johnny Mikkelsen: This whole experience has been amazing. I had my food truck set up outside of Paramount Studios for two years. That is a lot of my life to waist parked in one spot. I saw a lot girls come and go. I first parked the Steak and Strip truck outside the back lot in January of 2009. I didn't notice people dressed as Norse Gods coming to the truck until sometime in 2010. And now it's May 2011, and I am thinking about driving out to Albuquerque so the entire Marvel cast of superheroes can enjoy my Gravel Steak.
So, you are thinking about leaving Los Angeles to Cater to the Avengers?
Johnny Mikkelsen: Yes. I know they've already started production, but I can't leave for anther ten days. It's thrilling, because I feel like I have already built the Steak and Strip name up amongst certain members of the cast. I know my steaks. I know how they should taste. This will be like serving old friends. I will have to find some new dancers once I get into New Mexico (laughs). You always need 'fresh meat! Aside from that, knowing when and what to serve a big production like The Avengers has become old hat. I am very familiar with this territory. Its crazy the tips some of these guys leave. Its such a privilege to serve people like Robert Downey Jr. and Samuel L. Jackson, or it will be if they decide to venture over to the truck. Maybe I can even get Scarlett Johansson to dance on the back of the truck for me. Then again, the last thing I need is a punch in the mouth from Sean Penn. Hopefully he will come out and have one of my Gravel Steaks, too! It's so wild. There are like seven superheroes in The Avengers. If they all like my Steak and Strip, who knows how much future business that will mean. Getting to see those guys in costume is like a childhood dream come true. That's why I have to make sure the food is done on a scale that's never been done before. You ever have E-Z Cheese on a freshly BBQ'd steak? You don't come back a disappointed man.
Did you ever make anything special for the cast and crew of Thor that you might incorporate into your everyday menu? A Thor-inspired side dish?
Johnny Mikkelsen: I had planned on serving up a new steak side dish to Kenneth Branagh. Beer battered Beet chips. Kind of like onion rings. But the day I decided to make them, it was just second unit shooting. Who cares about second unit, right? My partner and me ate most of them. They must have not been very good, though. Because I haven't thought about making them again until you just said that. The origin of the Beet Chip was supposed to be like the origin of Thor. We write these weird little things like that on the take home menu. Banished from the cook's kitchen because it turned his stool bright pink! Kind of gross. Its ancient mythology. It's like the food in Amsterdam. Like the McCrocket. Deep-fried beef gravy served on a bun with a pickle. That's what I think Thor and his buddies would eat. Its nice to have people in the truck who will go along with these weird fusion ideas when it comes to cooking. But this is a steak truck, with naked girls dancing on the back. It's supposed to be simple. Fries. Steak. Coke. You might deviate from that once in a while, but it comes with bumps and bruises.
The cast of Thor must be health nuts. Especially someone like Chris Hemsworth, who has to stay in great shape. Steak is a great source of protein, but your plates are also verging on fast food. How did you find that balance between a classic Steak and potatoes meal and junk food?
Johnny Mikkelsen: I don't know. That's kind of like asking me the difference between eating supper on a plate at the table, or scarfing it off a napkin while you stand on the curb out in the cold. Its different experiences, but is it different food? With dinner on a plate, you usually spend all evening preparing it, and then there is the meal, which can last for hours if it's eaten with the right company. Here, it's cooked extremely fast. No real thought goes into its preparation. And you eat it as fast as possible, hardly talking between bites. It's a different discipline and rigor. It's very different. But if I cook it, at the end of the day, it's the same piece of meat. The surroundings are what make it different. Even though you are scarfing it down at the speed of light, it's still this delicious plate of food. I hope, with each meal I serve off the back of my truck, we are able to capture some of that food on a plate vibe. It's exciting for me to pull that off.
What are some of the challenges of catering to a big production like Thor?
Johnny Mikkelsen: Every prepared meal is a challenge. You have to get the temperature just right. Sitting in the truck for 10, sometimes 12, hours a day, having to cook on a whim...There is no external stimulus. The best thing about spontaneously having to have six or seven steaks cooked all at the drop of a hat, that is something that happens when you work freelance in food for movies. It's impossible to recreate the same steak every single time. So you have to use your imagination. Sometimes, we would try to dress up like the characters seen in Thor, but that's hard to cook in. The helmet obscures your vision. Grease stains burn and don't come out of spandex. And it gets really hot in the back of that truck. The girls are lucky they don't have to wear clothes. It's a hard job sometimes, but I love it. I don't mind. Maybe I'll paint myself green on the set of The Avengers. I'll be the Hulk of Steaks!
You used to run a restaurant in Los Angeles. Do you ever consider leaving the food truck behind and going back to a real kitchen?
Johnny Mikkelsen: They always say the steak is blacker on the other side. (Laughs) I saw my friend last week, who is still a short order cook at this little dive in Westwood. He gets excited when Kevin James walks in the door. And that can be fun. But he's locked in there all day. There is no freedom in that. I can roam. If the superheroes at Paramount aren't digging me on a Wednesday, I can up and leave, and come back on Thursday. My friend, he's in that same kitchen seven days a week, ten hours a day. He makes these great, huge meals. For sure. There is always a little envy watching him tear into a three course meal with dessert. But as he says, "You got to serve steak to a Norse god!" It all works out.
What can cast and crew expect from you while you are on the set of The Avengers?
Johnny Mikkelsen: The thing to remember is that everyone loves a good ol' steak. Just a steak. It's the main course of the best meal. And we make the best steak on the planet. We won't change much. Look out, The Avengers! The Steak and Strip is a major threat to your hunger! That's on a cosmic, universal scale. No matter what anyone tells you, superheroes are always a little hungrier than anyone else!