As one of 10 children growing up in a big Catholic family in Nashville, Tenn., Tom Morales learned his way around a kitchen and how to stretch a food budget early. “My dad used to make us cook on the weekends,” Morales says. “‘Get your mother out of the kitchen,’ he’d say. I learned out of necessity.”
Three decades later, and Morales is still cooking—only now in places as exotic as Easter Island or 10,000 feet up in the mountains of Colorado, on film or TV shoots where he’s preparing meals for Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, Madonna or some of the dozens of other movie, TV and music stars who’ve come to depend on him for their favorite foods.
He hadn’t even heard the words “mobile kitchen” when he started his food business in 1976, but that didn’t stop the determined young chef from launching his own company in 1986 and eventually revolutionizing the industry with his innovative ideas and timesaving methods.
After finding the corporate world wasn’t for him, Morales began his humble food-to-you operation in the back of a tiny refurbished taco truck. Today, his TomKats Catering has grown into an operation with 45 employees based in Nashville who also work out of New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans and Atlanta.
From music to movies
Morales began catering concert events in his hometown, cooking up backstage meals for Eric Clapton, Hank Williams Jr. and other singing stars. That led to music-video catering stints in the early ’90s. But when an independent film hired him, word got out and he soon found himself serving the casts of major movie productions, including “Prince Of Tides,” “City Slickers” and “Young Guns.”
Mainly through necessity, Morales set up his food lines buffet-style—instead of serving one plate at a time out of a tiny kitchen window—and began saving the studios big money by saving them big time on the clock.
“We were on “A League Of Their Own” feeding 1,500 people a day, and a week [into the shoot] the producers came to me and said, ‘Tom, you’re feeding everybody in 20 minutes.’ I thought I was in trouble! I had basically given them back 45 minutes a day during shooting.”
Not only was he serving meals quicker, Morales was also using more creativity in his menus. He quickly gained a reputation among producers seeking to keep their crews happy on long, sometimes tedious filming schedules that can often stretch into two months and beyond.
“TomKats consistently brings fresh, tasty, varied and wholesome meals to the table, and over the course of a long shoot this is much more difficult than most people realize,” says producer Harvey Waldman, whose high-profile projects include the movies “Failure to Launch” and “Confessions of a Shopaholic” and TV’s “Boardwalk Empire” and the miniseries “Mildred Pierce.” “Other companies fall back on the same safe choices, but TomKats keeps it interesting.”
Quirky star diets
Morales also became a quick study on stars’ eating habits and the myriad of unusual and intricate diets that often have to be accommodated on big-budget films. He’s seen (and served) it all, from Demi Moore’s green-beans-only diet to George Clooney’s spicy pasta, and has become a master at pleasing every palate from top-tier superstars to technicians, cameramen and grips.
With a fully mobile kitchen equipped with an ice well, coffee urn, flat-top for frying, oven, sink and prep area, along with a large kitchen prep truck, a box truck filled with dining equipment, and a tow-behind grill, TomKats rolls into towns with a four- to seven-person crew and prepares gourmet meals regardless of the terrain or weather conditions. It’s Morales’ job to ensure that a cast and crew get the best meal possible—even if he and his crew are standing in 3 feet of water while serving it!
“”On What About Bob?,” it was pouring down,” he recalls. “A hurricane had blown through and there were torrential rains. We just dug a trench right through the feeding tent, and there was this big creek rushing through!
Another time, on the set of “G.I. Jane” in Jacksonville, Fla., the location managers had set up the catering tent on a sand peninsula without adequately consulting tidal charts. By lunchtime, the peninsula had become an island—and half underwater. “Seventy Navy SEALs came snorkeling right into the tent and popped up to get their food!” Morales says.
Making people happy
Last fall, in yet another unique location, Morales was doing what he loves best. As he grilled up a sumptuous meal of fresh oysters and shrimp on the tarmac of an airport outside Nashville, eager cast and crew members of the movie “The Identical” came back for seconds as the film’s producer, Coke Sams, explained why he repeatedly looks to Morales not only for food, but also for the attitude he brings.
“Catering is one of the most important decisions on a shoot, because it either makes the crew happy, or it makes them miserable,” Sams says. “And they pass that along to everyone. Tom gets what a host is—it’s the difference between people who just serve food, and people that know how to make people happy.”
That quality has enabled Morales to open and run three successful restaurants as well, including his most recent, the Dixie-chic Southern Steak & Oyster in downtown Nashville. He also heads a disaster relief catering operation, Home On The Range, founded after 9/11 to assist victims of disasters like hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.
But the roving caterer still finds his favorite place is behind a grill in some obscure location, serving up his specialties under the craziest of conditions. And he thrives on being the best, no matter the conditions or circumstances.
“You don’t know whether your equipment is going to break down, or if it’s gonna get there; you’re gonna have environmental issues—it’s raining, it’s snowing, it’s cold, it’s hot,” Morales says. “And you’ve got these people who can eat all over the world, anywhere they want. It can definitely be a challenge.
“Anybody can do two weeks worth of good meals—but 60 days in, if they still like you, then you’ve done something.”