Lifting the Lid

Brothers Matt and Ted Lee (Ted’s on the left) were so impressed by a trio of catering chefs that they decided to write a book about the profession.

In their new book, brothers Matt Lee and Ted Lee share their undercover experiences—the good, the bad and the ugly—in the high-stakes world of New York catering

By Sara Perez Webber

“What kind of person chooses this as a nightly drill?” That’s the question Ted Lee asks himself as he’s helping to plate entrees for a $2,000-a-head gala for 465 guests. It was “the most extravagant party of New York’s fall social season that year,” he writes, a high-stakes event for caterer Sonnier & Castle. But the pressure reaches a boiling point after complaints of lukewarm food, prompting Chef Patrick Phelan to demand that servers start sprinting back to the kitchen to get the plates out faster.

While that event ended up a smashing success, Ted and his brother Matt Lee discover that the “dark cloud hanging over all catered dinners is simultaneity of service” in their new book HOTBOX: Inside Catering, the Food World’s Riskiest Business (Henry Holt and Company, 2019). The Lee brothers—food and travel journalists who’ve authored James Beard award-winning cookbooks and appear frequently on food TV—delved deep to research this peek “behind the pipe and drape,” as they put it. They spent four years immersed in the catering world, working as kitchen assistants, and prep and party chefs for catering firms in New York City (where Ted lives) and Charleston, S.C. (the brothers’ hometown and Matt’s home base).

The result is a fascinating read about what goes on behind the scenes at catered events, scenarios that will ring true for those who are in the business—and open the eyes of those who aren’t. As Kim Severson of The New York Times wrote: “It’s a revelatory, detail-rich and often breathless examination of a cutthroat world where the demanding clients include billionaires and celebrity brides but the cooking conditions resemble a mobile Army hospital.” Along the way, the Lees, awed by caterers’ improvisational skills, explain their lingo and tools of the trade, such as “hotbox” (or proofer, “an upright aluminum cabinet on wheels, lifeblood for caterers”); “re-run” (a return trip of the truck to pick up something left behind); and “sheet pan magic.”

As Matt and Ted tell Catering Magazine, they’d like to see more people who choose catering as their nightly drill tell their stories—and they hope their book helps raise the profile of “the people who perform these herculean feats” in catering kitchens. “We hope that by bringing this culture that’s been hiding in plain sight to the fore, we’ll also embolden more people from the world of catering to use their voices and share their perspectives in discussions of every aspect of catering (sales, labor, artistry, waste, design),” says Ted.

“We do hope our book touches a nerve,” adds Matt, “and that a deeper knowledge of how parties work from a culinary standpoint becomes mainstream.”

Matt gets hands-on experience in a catering kitchen.

CM: When exactly did you realize you were going to dig deep into the world of catering and write a book about it?

Matt: From the very first time we worked an event with a trio of catering chefs, Patrick Phelan and the brothers Juan and Jorge Soto, in the kitchen of the James Beard House in New York City, we knew we wanted to write something about their world of culinary “special-ops,” so to speak. There was something about the way they worked—their resourcefulness, intuitiveness and alacrity, and the fact that they’d never worked in that notoriously cramped kitchen before, but were entirely at ease in it, was awe-inspiring. And from the moment we punched the clock, and joined their team, we knew there was a book to be written about their specialized, mostly hidden event kitchens.

CM: Since, as you note in the book, the catering world in New York is extremely competitive, was it hard to get people to open up to you about what goes on in their businesses?

Ted: Ironically, it wasn’t so difficult, and we think that’s for several reasons. First, in a busy market like New York, there aren’t so many trade secrets, because kitchen and service staffs are typically freelancers who work for different firms from one night to the next. If ownership couldn’t get comfortable with that reality, they’d never survive a day in the New York market!

Second, Instagram and social media means that caterers have become accustomed to broadcasting their best ideas and most beautiful dishes to the world as a marketing tool, to say: “This is who we are, this is what we do, this is why you’ll love us.” Third, people who work in catering are very proud of what they do day in and day out—they create some of the most momentous nights of people’s lives! And yet their very success is dependent upon their invisibility, the extent to which that magical meal appears as if out of the very air. Perhaps because of that, we found caterers to be very generous and very eager to share the unseen logistics and techniques that enable the magic.

CM: While you were performing various jobs to understand the industry, what was your most stressful moment?

Ted: For us, the stress was literally every party—especially when we were starting out. The ones that particularly come to mind are my completely botched serve-out of a canape for a wedding for 185 people that incorporated a tuile (micro-thin wafer cookie) on a 100-degree day with 100 percent humidity. No matter how delicate my touch, every cookie broke. I might have gotten three platters of 12 pieces to the floor, but no more than that!

Matt: For me, it was the time I burned the Parmesan cream sauce for the first-course ravioli at a Frick Museum trustees dinner, requiring a re-run that was not a sure thing, timing-wise; there was no assurance we’d be able to recover before serve-out. Every second of the clock ticking was like a jab in the ribs!

CM: You delve into the history of the catering industry in the book (thanks for the shout-out to Catering Magazine on page 96!). What surprised you the most about the catering industry’s beginnings?

Matt: Just how ad hoc and mom-and-pop it all was. There’s so much in common with the firms that started in the ’70s and early ’80s. It was usually an individual, or a couple, who got a reputation for throwing great parties out of their apartment kitchens, and hung out a shingle. And then they just went where the market took them, perfecting and adapting with the times, and 40 years later they’re firms doing many millions of dollars a year in sales. The same was true for businesses that serviced and grew along with them: Party Rental Ltd. started as a liquor store owner’s side-hustle, and then Sunny and Michael Halperin bought that side-business in 1972 and grew it into the giant it is today.

 

CM: Do you think your book will help catering chefs earn the attention and respect afforded to restaurant chefs?

Ted: We absolutely hope so. Why isn’t there a James Beard Award for catering? James Beard himself catered, in the 1950s. On the surface, it would seem a challenge to judge, because how do you find an engaged group of diners who have experienced the work of a multiplicity of firms in a given region, or even nationwide? But in the restaurant categories, there’s no guarantee that judges have dined at all the restaurants nominated, so it’s a similar conundrum that’s in play with the awards currently. Awards or no, we really do hope that shining a light on the mechanics and logistics of special event kitchens brings respect to an industry that we think has suffered from a “low expectations” stigma for too long.

CM: Do you ever miss doing the catering jobs you did while researching this book, and have you hosted any of your own catered events since seeing the other side of the “pipe and drape”?

Matt: Absolutely. Although we didn’t always love the stress of the fiesta kitchen, we did enjoy the teamwork and the sense of camaraderie with coworkers and strangers alike. We’re freelancers, and we collaborate with one another, but essentially it’s writing, and writing is very solitary, lonely labor. Being part of a team was a revelation. A sense of excitement, performance and theatricality set in the moment we stepped into the kitchen until the time at the end of the party when Juan filled out the Event Report, and all there was to write was, “Chingon!” [“Excellent!”].

Ted: To answer the second part of your question, as writers we don’t have the resources to host our own catered functions, but I do get to experience the other side of the pipe and drape, since my wife is a contemporary artist, and we attend a few catered galas and receptions at museums and cultural institutions every year. But it does stress me out, for example, when the service captains ring a chime to get everyone to sit down, and people dawdle and linger—infuriating!

CM: Any predictions for how the catering industry evolves from here?

Matt: We see more evidence of chefs using sous-vide and combi-ovens that may change the game for how proteins get cooked; is the “hotbox hustle,” as we call it—rewarming par-cooked food in transport cabinets over Sterno—on the way out? Tough to know; the hotbox is still such a workhorse—simple, durable and efficient, as long as you have the talent to run it.

Ted: We also see more and more firms adopting software that integrates a firm’s recipe book with its purchasing function, enabling precise tracking of cost and inventory. When you know how much every pinch of salt costs, it makes it easier—theoretically—to see how going off-script from the recipe catalogue can cost the firm. But we also see more chefs and firms preserving their flexibility. They’ll present a dish at a tasting six months before the event as a model of what a dish might look and taste like, but say: “Trust us to know what’s going to be in season then, we’ll make what’s on the plate at the event as seasonally appropriate as it can possibly be, but we can’t guarantee today exactly what that will be or taste like.” Whenever a client trusts the chef implicitly, we think that’s a net positive for the quality of the food and, as a result, the tenor of the floor from a guest perspective.

Matt: It’s in everyone’s interest for hosts and event planners to make more informed decisions around the food for celebrations, so that everyone eats better and more happily.

Here’s an example of the kind of awful decisions about food that are routinely made and which we hope become a thing of the past: A very wealthy client requested caviar pie as a first course for an outdoor party in East Hampton on Labor Day weekend. The recipe wasn’t in the firm’s repertoire, and it’s about the richest dish you could imagine eating: three different varieties of caviar, mayonnaise, sour cream, cream cheese, sieved egg. Instead of the salesman steering the client toward a luxurious dish he knew the firm’s kitchen could execute successfully in hot weather (and that might be appetizing in hot weather!), the salesman said “yes” to the client, pricing the dish on the proposal equivalent to the price of the most extravagant first-course the firm serves, the seasonal burrata salad. During R&D, the chef discovered the ingredient cost for this caviar pie was in fact two or three times the portion price on the quote.

The day of the party was a 100-degree day with 100 percent humidity, and the kitchen bent over backwards with dry ice to keep these portions of caviar pie chilled and stable for serve-out. And they did it, but nobody ate it, so all that cost and expense and labor and R&D went into the trash can! We realize it’s unlikely, but wouldn’t it be amazing if catering chefs never had to encounter stupid, costly, demoralizing decisions like that ever again?