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Sport 8: Autumn 1992

♣ Michael Gifkins — Romancing Alison Holst

page 155

Michael Gifkins

Romancing Alison Holst

A food stylist is someone who picks the props and 'styles' the food on the plate. A home economist is often the person who cooks it. Most good food consultants do their own styling, in that the presentation of the food is as integral to the whole process as is the cooking of it, or the conceiving of a new recipe in the first place. This is particularly important if you are putting your own name to your work.

... the idea was to expand into the overseas market, because there was good dollars coming back from America compared with the New Zealand market, and do a turkey commercial. Being an American commercial meant that you couldn't show on the screen any product that was not what was actually being advertised, so we had to get American turkeys into New Zealand. MAF regulations stated that you couldn't import turkeys. Perhaps we should have gone straight to the Minister, but we waffled round at the bottom end of MAF and it was agreed that the turkeys could be held in captivity, as it were, under refrigeration in quarantine at the airport.

The other thing was that New Zealand doesn't produce any turkeys the same size as American turkeys, which are just enormous—around 40 pounds. They even make special plates to put them on! Tegel said they could give us just one—one turkey. So these turkeys came out from America but they were not packed properly, which only added to the confusion later on. They defrosted sitting on the runway on a plane which had some mechanical problem in Hawaii, and when the plane finally lifted off the temperatures at the higher altitude caused the turkeys to freeze again and so they were frozen when they were transferred to the MAF's little walk-in fridge out at the airport.

Sometimes you have to cheat. If you want your garnish to look perfect on a soup, for example, you set it in gelatine. Glazing a dish with water or a little oil brings it to life for the photographer. As food cools it tends to lose its shine.


page 156

. . . I was called in to attend to these turkeys—60 of them—and they were enormous huge things. We had to defrost them to begin with. The entire commercial was to be 15 seconds long and they brought out the owners of the turkey farm, they brought out the production crew, and they built everything including bridges, down at Hamilton. The bridges in New England are like a covered-in barn bridge, amazing things all decoratively carved inside, but when they'd built the bridge they realised it was in the wrong place since they wanted a tree in the shot as well, so they dismantled the bridge and moved it about twenty feet down the river. They had a special crew doing that, they had somebody else looking for props, then they had to find a suitable house, which was down Napier/Hastings, a beautiful old mansion down there.

We couldn't take the turkeys out of Auckland Airport, they had to stay in the quarantine station at MAF. So we decided we would have to cook them, to the internal temperature required for MAF to let them go. We only had one steamer, it was like a hospital steamer and it would only take two at once. We set up a card table and had to wash these things and clean them out. They were revolting at this point—just beginning to defrost, though some of them were still frozen at the bottom. Turkeys have these enormous big muscles around their legs and because we were steaming them, the meat all came away from the legs and we ended up with bones sticking up in the air that the client of course didn't like but there was nothing we could do about. So I bandaged the turkey legs in gauze—the paraffin gauze that you buy from the chemist. We must have spent about $180 on paraffin gauze and we wrapped it around their legs before they went into the steamer to try and protect them from the heat. Then we put lots of gauze on top so they'd go in looking like broken bones then they would steam until they reached the required internal temperature at which point they'd come out. All the runnings-off had to be burnt in the incinerator—they weren't allowed to go out of the eyesight of the MAF people.

For ice cream, mashed potato is often substituted. It holds the ripples perfectly, and it does not melt. The alternative is to set the ice-cream on dry ice. This requires care, because at the lower temperature the ice cream can shatter a crystal bowl.

... it would take about an hour and a half to steam two turkeys so I'd start at about six in the morning and still be there at nine at night, steaming page 157 turkeys. When we took them out we'd sit them outside in the sun—or in the air, really—to cool them, because there was nowhere else to put them. We're talking about MAF who have only one fridge and that's for their beer on a Friday night. I realised then that the job was a bit big for me and I didn't want to hang in with the American clients in Hastings so I brought in a partner and we agreed to split the work. I'd stay in Auckland and miss all the aggravation from the Americans and she'd go to Hastings. It was my job to steam and prepare these turkeys and her job to paint them up with cocoa and coffee and arrowroot to make them look like they're just come out of an oven. We used to have big signs on the call sheets every morning, saying DO NOT EAT THE TURKEYS DO NOT TOUCH THE TURKEYS because by this point they were fairly lethal with salmonella, I should imagine, not to mention a whole host of other goodies.

Sometimes you tend to undercook things to make them look better for the camera. A little bit more cooking is required if you're going to eat it later.

... they were doing this 15-second commercial and they were here for a two- week shoot-two weeks for 15 seconds of prime time American television. We started to steam the turkeys and then they wanted some of them boned out and rolled. I had to bone out about 20 of these 40-pounders. It wasn't too much of a problem but it was time-consuming. And then we had to stuff them with spinach. We bought up frozen spinach, Watties frozen spinach. But the spinach wasn't the right colour so we had to buy in fresh spinach, in sackfuls on the back of a truck. We cooked one night right through the night and we steamed this spinach—we had spinach all over the lounge floor in bowls and buckets. Anything else you could fit spinach into, we had it in it that night. At first we were stripping the stalks from the spinach but in the end we gave up and the stalks and everything went in.

We couldn't take the turkeys away from MAF to stuff them, so we had to bone them out at MAF, then we had to stuff them and skewer them. They had to be perfect so you couldn't actually put them in a netting or wrap them up in any way. Then we had to steam them until they were at this internal temperature. But the skins kept splitting, the same as it did off the turkey legs, so we wrapped the entire turkey in paraffin gauze and dragged it off when it was cooked.


page 158

Total sales of the Edmonds Cookbook continue to exceed New Zealand's total population. Armies have marched on memories of the recipes in this book. It may have done more than any other to hold back the progress of civilisation in this country, and more than any other to contribute to the incidence of obesity, heart disease and diabetes that distinguish its inhabitants.

... then they had these turkey breasts, which were enormous, but that wasn't such a problem. They also had turkey pieces. They wanted to do a barbecue, with people eating these turkey pieces. We had to steam the wings and the drumsticks—we're talking drumsticks the size of my arm, because these were American turkeys. It was like something out of the cannibal age, people standing round this fire going gnaw gnaw gnaw at these enormous turkey legs.

A quarter of the best-selling books of all time in New Zealand deal with food. They are, as to be expected, evenly divided between cookery, and dieting to lose weight.

... we steamed these turkeys for four days, for about twelve hours a day, non- stop. The Americans on set just couldn't believe their turkeys were not coming up to shape. But we're talking about turkeys that had been defrosted and refrozen and defrosted and then cooked in a steamer. We packed them into big boxes, with ice, every night. Somebody drove from Hastings every night up to MAF at rendezvous time and we'd pack in that night turkey pieces and whole turkeys and down he drove again the next morning with these turkeys warm from being on top of the motor in the van and with the ice melting around them, all the way to Hastings. And then we'd buy in more ice—we must have used at least 150 ice packs to get these turkeys cool.

They'd cook the turkeys, in Hastings, with one stove in a caravan. My partner and her assistant had to turn out turkeys every half an hour for them. You mix up arrowroot and coffee, anything that's brown and liquid—soya sauce, Worcestershire sauce—to make a brown, thick, syrupy sauce and then you paint this on the turkey until it looks the right colour and then you glaze it in the oven. It comes out looking like you've just baked it.

By this time it's been defrosted, refrozen, defrosted, steamed, chilled— and now it's reheated. When they reached the table they must have been really high. They all had these little poppers in them that tell you when they're cooked, so we had to cut them out without marking the skin and page 159 then put them back into the right time when they were going to carve them.

And then they had to carve them in front of the actors but no one was allowed to touch them, so the turkey was then picked up and biffed out.

The Edmonds Microwave Cookery Book may well be the world's fastest selling book. In 14 months it achieved a penetration of one copy per 16 people: equivalent to sales of over z million in Australia, 3.5 million in the United Kingdom, or 5.5 million in the United States of America. Visiting merchandisers of 'brownware' continue to be amazed at the high sales of microwave ovens in New Zealand—an appliance that elsewhere in the consumer West is seen as a kitchen tool of limited application that has little to do with good food.

The present local epidemic of food poisoning—salmonella, listeria— probably owes as much to the use of microwave ovens as it does to a Health Dept in disarray.

... they didn't dispose of the turkeys every night. They actually kept the turkeys until the end of the week's shoot. By this time the plastic bags were blown. They were absolutely full of maggots and they were as high as anything. It must have been two or three days after the completion of the shoot before somebody said, how do we get rid of the turkeys?

They rang me on a Sunday morning in Auckland to try and find out how we get rid of them. They had to be disposed of properly, but no one actually knew what properly meant. So we rang MAF and told them that the turkeys were blown. They had an absolute and utter fit and said they had to be incinerated. But this was on a Sunday in Napier and Hastings and there's just not a soul around—this is New Zealand, remember. So they rang the wharfies and said they would fill them with beer if they would burn these turkeys. Well the turkeys were still on the baking trays and we went through a thousand dollars worth of baking trays that we had to hire from one of the hire companies in town—they were all just sitting in these bags. The smell was so putrid you couldn't get near them.

The young guy who had done the driving filled his mouth with rosemary and lavender and tied scarves round every part of his body except his eyes to see where he was driving. He filled the van up with these turkeys that were off and blown and drove them from Hastings into Napier, into the wharf. The wharfies had to be rolling drunk before they would touch them.


page 160

The Alison Holst New Microwave Cookery Book was eighth on the list of bestsellers from all sources in New Zealand in 1990—narrowly pipped by The Bourne Ultimatum and Buck—The Wayne Shelford Story. Alison Holst's two bestselling titles between them invade one in three New Zealand homes, making her a millionaire from book sales alone. Double that for chat shows and endorsements.

... when they got back to America they had to reshoot the close-ups because the turkey meat was no good, which was pretty understandable, really. From beginning to whoa they must have been defrosted or cooked at least four times before they actually made it to camera. Then you had to have all the other trimmings that went along with it. New Zealand was chosen because we were at least in season and they wanted the commercial done in a hurry to reach the Thanksgiving market, and we were at least in the right time of the year—December we were doing it. Four days before Christmas and the last thing I wanted for Christmas dinner was turkey put in front of me with a bit of ham beside it.

Trying to find some of the products that you have at Thanksgiving—we didn't actually have at that time of the year ... the different kinds of pumpkins and all the rest of the things they wanted. And then a carving plate to put the turkey on. There wasn't one in all of New Zealand that we could find so we had one shipped out from America on an overnight flight. This dollar wastage just went on and on and on.

The finished commercial looked all right—it actually looked fine. The client was relatively pleased, though the costings had gone over the top- the amount of people they'd had to haul in to help, and then their attitude of just buy it. They imported a special kind of heater to hold over the corn when you are melting the butter where normally I'd use a hairdrier. They couldn't believe New Zealand—for them it was like walking back into the Dark Ages.

An average magazine fee for food articles might be $500 a page—that, or $180-200 a recipe. A photographer receives in the vicinity of $200-300 a photo, although 'name' photographers might demand much more.

... they were very sure of themselves—they'd worked with all the best people in America and we were just like offal. When they wanted props. . . page 161 they sacked three props guys in the process because they couldn't get someone that suited their ideas. They were coming to another country with different crockery that was more British than American—props turned up with two sets of the right stuff when they expected at least a dozen. They were very fickle—they'd pick clothes and then decide they didn't like the clothes: they had the girls running round at unbelievable hours getting people to open stores to get clothes to show them. The client didn't speak to you—didn't even lower himself to say hello to you.

The worst thing was the paraffin bandages—it made the turkeys seem like something out of Vietnam—though it was worth it financially to us in the end.

Some stylists use hair spray on their food.

... they were shooting this wonderful scene with the sun coming up over the wheat down in Hastings—straw out of the mouth, hat on head, father and son. They'd picked a little boy that they'd liked and then decided they'd shoot it a bit earlier so they had to ring the kid and get him out of bed with no warning at 3.30. The local farmer had brought his boys along just to watch because for them it was really exciting, happening on their own property, and they liked his kids better. So they just got rid of the talent that they'd ordered and used the farmer and his sons because they were more local. They would have had to pay both of them. They made these kinds of decisions all the way down the line. I think I realised afterwards that if I'd worked out exactly how it was all going to work, I would have walked away right there and then.

The reason a freshly barbecued whole fillet of beef looks so luscious as the host's knife cuts through it in a magazine photo is probably because two or three congealed examples have just been thrown away. Either that, or you just keep cutting until you expose the kind of flesh you want.

Launched recently in Sydney at David Jones' Elizabeth Street store was a perfume from the jewellery house of Boucheron, Paris. The fragrance is described as a 'bouquet caught midway between the Bay of Bengal and a perpetually flowering garden', and comprises the aromas of Sicilian tangerine and Calabrian bitter orange; vanilla, narcissus and wild Indian page 162 carnations; and Spanish basilica and Abyssinian civet.

A dinner for 140 people was contrived by three of Sydney's top chefs and served on Limoges china with Christofle flatware and Baccarat crystal glasses, by a team of 15 runners and 20 waiters.

The bottle holding the new fragrance is shaped like ring containing a cabochon sapphire and this was echoed by the golden coffret with a lid, in the cabochon shape, of blue glass, containing Beluga caviare in large quantities for each guest and accompanied by a fine champagne.

The entrée was a quartet of seafoods, served together on the same large plate and comprising prawns with a tomato, onion and cucumber concassé, scallop rounds with lemon juice and chives presented in the shell, oysters likewise, with baby shallots and wine vinegar, and lobster tail with cream sauce. This was accompanied by a premier cru Mersault.

The main course, served to the 140 guests in 12 minutes flat, paired roasted thigh of chicken with chicken breast stuffed with foie gras, together with a frou-frou of leeks, and mushrooms. This dish of powerful flavours was offset by a 1986 Chateau Haut Brion.

The dessert, combining orange caramel sauce and orange cream in a tulip case edged with chocolate, bore up, nestling in the cream and to the delectation of each guest, a miniature of the perfume bottle made of spun sugar. Each tiny ring took the master patissier charged with their rendition some 15 minutes to make. This course was reinforced by a 1984 Chateau d'Yquem.

In 1991 Alison Holst showed us how a family on the breadline might spin out half a mutton for a week or even longer. Prior to 1991 the carcases of adult sheep were being used for dogfood or rendered down to tallow.

The coffee was accompanied by armagnac and Poire William. Four trumpeters descended on an escalator in a cloud of blue smoke playing Rhapsody in Blue, after which a flautist draped in blue velvet lounged suggestively across the grand piano, offering the gratified diners Ravel's Bolero on three silver flutes of descending size.