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Hotbox: Inside Catering, the Food World's Riskiest Business

Hotbox: Inside Catering, the Food World's Riskiest Business

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Hotbox: Inside Catering, the Food World's Riskiest Business

3.5/5 (33 valutazioni)
300 pagine
3 ore
Apr 9, 2019


Matt Lee and Ted Lee take on the competitive, wild world of high-end catering, exposing the secrets of a food business few home cooks or restaurant chefs ever experience.

Hotbox reveals the real-life drama behind cavernous event spaces and soaring white tents, where cooking conditions have more in common with a mobile army hospital than a restaurant. Known for their modern take on Southern cooking, the Lee brothers steeped themselves in the catering business for four years, learning the culture from the inside-out. It’s a realm where you find eccentric characters, working in extreme conditions, who must produce magical events and instantly adapt when, for instance, the host’s toast runs a half-hour too long, a hail storm erupts, or a rolling rack of hundreds of ice cream desserts goes wheels-up.

Whether they’re dashing through black-tie fundraisers, celebrity-spotting at a Hamptons cookout, or following a silverware crew at 3:00 a.m. in a warehouse in New Jersey, the Lee brothers guide you on a romp from the inner circle—the elite team of chefs using little more than their wits and Sterno to turn out lamb shanks for eight hundred—to the outer reaches of the industries that facilitate the most dazzling galas. You’ll never attend a party—or entertain on your own—in the same way after reading this book.

Apr 9, 2019

Informazioni sull'autore

Matt and Ted Lee are the authors of several bestselling cookbooks: Charleston Kitchen, Southern Cookbook, and Simple Fresh Southern. They have written for The New York Times, Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure, The New York Times Magazine, Gourmet, Saveur, and other publications, and have appeared on many TV shows, including Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and The Today Show. They have won six James Beard and IACP Awards.

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Hotbox - Matt Lee


We Know What You’re Thinking … Catering? Like, rubber-chicken dinners?

We know you’re thinking this because we were once like you. Not so long ago, we considered catering the elevator music of the culinary arts: when a chef scales up the numbers of plates into the hundreds and thousands, how could the quality of food not suffer?

So just hear us out. And come along with us, to narrow, tree-lined West Twelfth Street in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Step inside the tall brick town house—as it happens, a landmark of American gastronomy—where a chance encounter with a trio of catering chefs lured us into their largely hidden world and utterly upended our thinking about rubber chicken and dry salmon.

We’d been invited by two friends, restaurant chefs from Atlanta’s acclaimed Miller Union, to observe a special dinner they were cooking at the James Beard House, the former residence of food journalist, cookbook author, and pope of American food, James Beard. Almost every night of the year, the James Beard House hosts guest chefs from restaurants all around the country, invited by the James Beard Foundation (the food world’s Academy, whose annual awards show is the restaurant community’s Oscars) to prepare their most impressive dishes for a crowd of eighty food-obsessed New Yorkers and members of the food press. Cooking at the Beard House is a great honor, but no single chef who’s worked its kitchen there would say it’s a pleasure: the scale of the space is residential, but with hulking commercial ovens and dishwashers the ground floor heats up rapidly. That night was a ridiculously warm one in June.

Knowing well the challenges of the house, our Atlanta friends had recruited a buddy of theirs, Patrick Phelan, executive chef for a top New York caterer, Sonnier & Castle, to help them. And Patrick brought along his coworkers Juan and Jorge Soto. When the three caterers—all in their thirties—arrived in the kitchen, they had a wholly different mien from the Atlanta guys, Steven Satterfield and Justin Burdett. You’ve probably seen your share of restaurant chefs in real life or on TV, and know they roll with a certain flair, with brio, tattoos and piercings, statement hair (or facial hair), rare Japanese knives, their names embroidered on their chef coats. By contrast, the caterers’ affect revealed almost nothing: Patrick, Juan, and Jorge’s chefs’ jackets bore no names and they wore black polyester pillbox-style beanies. They pulled generic knives wrapped in dish towels from fraying, lumpy backpacks. None of the three had seen this kitchen before the evening they arrived, nor had they ever cooked the recipes they were about to produce. They blended into the wallpaper, anonymous to almost everyone dining at and even working this event, but something about the way they sized up this unfamiliar kitchen nevertheless conveyed gravitas. These were Special Ops culinary mercenaries, poised for a battle.

Since there was barely room enough for the five chefs, we spent the evening observing the plating up of dishes from the kitchen doorway and ferrying deli containers of ice water into the inferno. Things started to really accelerate when it came time to fire the third and fourth courses, eighty servings each of a sautéed quail and a braised oxtail crepinette (a crispy little puck), both of which needed to be burnished brown and cooked just right—not overdone—and in an instant. For the next half hour the three caterers were everywhere at once, slammed as any restaurant line at 8:45 p.m., but entirely in control. (Satterfield moved to the other side of the serving counter, to expedite and apply finishing touches, and to otherwise stay out of the way.) Without a wasted gesture or motion, the catering chefs worked sheet pans in ovens and sauté pans on every burner—at times sheet pans on raging burners, a makeshift griddle!—as gracefully and agilely as modern dancers. Their clipped dialogue was inscrutable to us, the vocabulary unfamiliar, issued at low volume amid the clatter. Hand, elbow, and head gestures were sufficient for most of what they needed to say to each other.

The dinner was a huge success, due in no small part to Patrick, Juan, and Jorge, and the food that evening was everything the restaurant chefs could have hoped for: exquisitely delicious, perfectly executed, on a par with the food Miller Union serves every day back home in Atlanta. (Satterfield has since won a James Beard Award.)

Afterward we followed the Sonnier & Castle crew to a bar nearby. When we marveled at their virtuosity with an unfamiliar menu in suboptimal circumstances, both Sotos smiled and shrugged.

"De nada," Juan said, laughing.

Jorge turned serious. You gotta understand. For us…? This is fun.

We did—what?—eighty covers tonight? Patrick added. These guys can do lamb chops for fourteen hundred. I tell them I need three hundred well-done, three hundred rare, eight hundred medium-rare. I tell them what time to serve-out. And I can walk away.

It’s not too hard, Juan said. You have to know the proofer.

Patrick explained: the proofer is another word for the hotbox—an upright aluminum cabinet on wheels, lifeblood for caterers—that conveys the partially cooked food from the refrigerator at the caterer’s prep kitchen to the site of the party. So those lamb chops for fourteen hundred would have been seared in advance at the caterer’s prep kitchen, just enough to get perfect coloring on the outside, but more or less raw inside. Then they slide on sheet pans into the proofer. The proofer rolls into a fridge to chill until it’s time to move them onto the truck for the ride to the venue. Once on-site, the hotboxes are emptied and transformed into working ovens, with each sheet pan of lamb placed over other sheet pans that hold only lit cans of Sterno.

"Sterno? we protested. Isn’t that for keeping chafing pans of rubber chicken warm on a hotel buffet?"

Not in catering at this level, he explained. All hot event food consumed in New York City gets heated and finished in this way. The side dishes for that lamb, the quinoa, roasted parsnips, whatever. Even the bread and the plates. All of it comes out of a hotbox.

You have to watch, Juan added, pointing to his eye. Feel, he said, rubbing his thumb between his forefingers. And listen. He tugged an earlobe. And organize. Always organize. But if you do, you can get it right.

We were certain we could not get it right—neither of us has the sensory knowledge, the mettle, or the wits. But the more we listened to these catering pros, the more captivated we were by their strange world of food-crafting-in-the-field, unlike anything we’d ever seen go down in a home or restaurant.

Patrick prodded Juan to tell us a horror story, about the time a hot proofer got too close to a sprinkler head at the New York Public Library and the plating line—food, chef, kitchen assistants—got soaked in a rust-water rain and still managed to serve dinner to three hundred people oblivious to the back-of-house disaster. You had to be cool, calm, and, especially, resourceful, whatever situation you were dealt, whether it was being conscripted from the kitchen to translate Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez’s Spanish into English for Oliver Stone, or discovering, only at the moment when she stepped into the yacht’s kitchen afterward, that you’d cooked an intimate thirtieth birthday dinner for Kim Kardashian.

Juan and Jorge Soto gathered their bags, said they had to get back to the Bronx. They were facing a 5:00 a.m. call time the next day. Patrick signaled for the check—he was headed back to the prep kitchen to get ahead of two events the following evening.

Walking to the subway, we peppered Patrick with questions, spooling out hypothetical nightmares at a giant party.

What if all the hotboxes won’t fit on one truck?

We rent another.

What if two—or ten—chefs don’t show up the night of the party?

Won’t happen.

What if the truck breaks down on a hot day? Is there ice in the proofer to keep the lamb chops chilled until it’s time to heat them back up?

Good question.

Anyone who cooks professionally knows the first principle of food safety is the danger zone, between 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, within which bacteria such as Clostridium perfringens are happiest and able to multiply exponentially. It’s why you want to keep raw food below 40 degrees until the moment you cook it and cooked food above 140 degrees until it’s time to serve. A common cause of food poisoning is from leftovers that lingered too long at room temperature before they went back in the fridge. This hotbox rigmarole the Sonnier crew had described seemed to add an extra cycle of heating and cooling to the lamb chops, but also another calculus of time and temperature in transporting the food to the venue.

Look, we’re monitoring our temps every step of the way, Patrick said. But I’ll be honest: if you work in catering, you’re gonna spend a lot of time in the danger zone. If you can’t get comfortable in the zone, you won’t survive a day on the job. Next question.

We had so many more questions for Patrick, and that’s how we ended up in his prep kitchen.

Even if you’ve never been a guest at Kim’s birthday party or a charity gala for fourteen hundred New York swells, likelier than not you’ve attended a catered event: a wedding, a holiday party, a quinceañera, a reception. Maybe you wondered how it all came together: What’s happening behind that black curtain? The thought might have been sparked by a moment as fleeting as seeing a server strain to lift a chafing dish (and may have disappeared just as quickly, your mind drifting back to your grandmother shuffling around the dance floor). You measure a party’s success, ultimately, by how much it focuses attention on the enjoyment of celebrants and guests, by its apparent effortlessness. Obscuring all toil, and especially the stories of the people who made the occasion happen, is the caterer’s ultimate goal.

But not ours.

In Hotbox, we’re taking you with us behind the pipe and drape—trade lingo for that black curtain—into a world engineered never to be seen, populated by individuals you’re never meant to hear from, performing deeds you can’t help being curious about (even if you kinda don’t want to know). In truth, our early analogy—the Special Ops team—was underdeveloped since that night at the James Beard House our Atlanta restaurant pals had made things easier: they brought the prepped rabbit and oxtail, and their kitchen was a fully equipped location with its own refrigerators and natural gas–powered ovens. Hot and cold running water! Event caterers aren’t just chefs, they’re haulers and builders, too, since they’re not only transporting the food to a remote spot, but also fashioning a kitchen out of thin air (oftentimes on sites as blank as a grass field or a cement loading dock), and there’s rarely ever running water. As such, they have more in common with MASH, a mobile army surgical hospital, than Special Operations—or a restaurant, for that matter. The tent campaign of loading and unloading the kitchen infrastructure and the delicate, squishy food involves so much travel, a factor that rarely disturbs the tight calculations of a restaurant chef, comfortable in her own familiar kitchen. In off-premise catering (as distinguished from banquet-hall catering or corporate cafeterias), there’s the expanse of actual miles—over minutes—the food must traverse: packed from the prep kitchen into rolling hotboxes, coolers, milk crates, and plastic bins, and onto the box truck for the journey to the venue; then unloaded from the truck onto elevators or carried up staircases to whatever hall or back room is designated the kitchen. Just as important, there is also the cognitive distance separating the minds of the kitchen prep crew that par-cooked and packed the food from those on the team receiving it in their makeshift party kitchen, unwrapping and setting up everything, finding every item—or not, forcing the dreaded (and inevitable) re-run.¹ And lastly, there are the servers, the cater waiters, those warm bodies from staffing agencies, typically freelancers who may work for a handful of competing firms from one night to the next, entrusted with moving and handling the food once it’s left the kitchen, to be presented to the guest. With rare exceptions, a catering chef hands his food to a total stranger.

All this discontinuity and travel geometrically multiplies the hazards standing in the way of a catering chef aiming to serve what was originally intended, that perfect plate, whose stunning flavors and stylish presentation clinched the deal at the client tasting many months prior. And in this context, time becomes a presence as tangible, fungible, and daunting as the weather—more so when the scale of the event is factored into the equation. While an epic fail at a restaurant table might cost the house a few customers, when there are eight hundred hungry guests on the event floor waiting for dinner to be served, havoc-wreaking scenarios—an electrical brownout blows power to the fryers and the stage lights; the host’s toast runs twenty minutes too long, condemning the lamb to overcooked toughness; a server faints and takes down with him a jack stand² of 120 plated desserts—may become apparent only at the moment they happen, and have greater consequences.

True, the stakes for the caterer are not nearly as high as for the army surgeon, but the vast majority of events that top New York firms cater to are pretty significant—charity galas, weddings, product launches, milestone birthdays, annual board meetings, political debuts, and movie premieres in one of the biggest, richest, most competitive cities in the world. As the minutes tick down to the serve-out of the first hors d’oeuvre, there’s more at risk than just the hundreds of thousands of dollars a client may have spent on the evening’s food, booze, and labor; there are the emotions of a bride and groom on their big day, the reputation of a top movie studio, or the longevity of an esteemed, hundred-year-old nonprofit. There are the memories of people celebrating some of the most momentous nights of their lives.

Considering all that these catering chefs are up against, and regularly conquer—their nerve-rattling tightrope sprints through A-list celebrity territory, the exquisite food torture, a season’s worth of MacGyver-y kitchen rescues that throw propriety, food safety, and convention out the door because "we have to make this work right now!"—the fact that they don’t get the attention or respect afforded restaurant chefs is astonishing. There’s no James Beard Award for them, yet the food that catering chefs create is often every bit as succulent and dazzling as what’s served at the gastronomic temples of the nation. And they’re cooking with handicaps a restaurant chef couldn’t fathom.

This book is our report from having steeped in the culture of catering and special events for four years, getting to know the business from the inside out, what makes it work, and what kinds of people choose to dwell in it. While reporting and writing this book, we worked as kitchen assistants, prep and party chefs for catering firms in New York City and in Charleston, South Carolina. We researched the business and its history extensively, and interviewed everyone we could: the denizens of catering kitchens, the chefs, and the kitchen assistants, or K.A.s, but also workers and leaders in every corner of special events, from the founders of influential catering firms, to salespeople who sell the menus, to the supporting industries, like lighting and rentals, to the party planners and event directors for whom catering is just one of a constellation of services they’re buying that adds up to a special event. It’s a realm where you find remarkable, often downright eccentric characters, working in extreme conditions, under insane stress, with the highest of expectations, mostly in lamentable spaces. Their goal is to make tonight appear special and intimate, unique and ephemeral. And then they do it again the very next day.

When we were working as catering kitchen assistants, most of our colleagues were aware we were studying the industry, taking mental notes. It didn’t seem to raise suspicions or matter much to the boots on the ground—except insofar as we were slow working and green: how you perform is everything to your character in catering. As for the people in the executive suite upstairs, they were a bit more circumspect, but ultimately cool with us working there as well. The catering business depends upon eager, nimble workers, and especially embraces ones inquisitive about the best way to get the job done. And when you’re comfortable employing a kitchen brimming with mercenaries, who flow almost seamlessly from firm to firm, you’re necessarily less concerned with revealing institutional secrets. Our usual journalistic strategy always has the two of us collaborating and doubling up on any interview or experience, but for this project we mostly worked different days in the prep kitchen and in the evenings, as our assigning chefs dictated. Sometimes we worked the same gig on different parts of the job; other times, we were across the prep table from each other. We shared our field notes, photographs, and thoughts with each other on a daily basis and we worked so many hours on so many similar assignments, for the same firms, that our observations and discoveries overlapped and became interchangeable.

To avoid shifting points of view, we adopt a first-person singular perspective—you could call it the royal I—throughout the book, calling out which brother is narrating at the head of each chapter, even if the other brother’s experiences may have informed it. And while that might seem odd, it’s actually quite natural: most people we encountered in catering thought we were the same person due to our similar age, build, baldness, and skill level. (We’re brothers, but not twins.) And in fact our kitchen nicknames, conferred by a lead chef in that absurdist way sobriquets typically are, were the same: Virginia. (He knew we were from the South, and he’d cooked there once, at a wedding near Richmond.) When it’s appropriate to do so, we snap back to the plural we.

Regarding naming: in cases where we worked alongside people in the trenches, we will introduce a person’s full name initially if we knew it in the course of the working relationship, but otherwise we use only the first name, or nickname, which in the collaborative working environment was the only moniker that mattered. For historical figures and subjects we interviewed with pad and pen or laptop, we refer to them by their surname after the first instance.

We begin by dropping you directly into hors d’oeuvres preparation at one of the largest parties on New York’s fall social calendar, the Park Avenue Armory Gala, about two years into our time in catering, and about forty-five minutes before the call for first hors d’oeuvres platters. From there, we gently rewind, taking you back to our first work days, getting acclimated to the prep kitchen. You’ll learn along with us the stresses and strains on body—and especially mind—as we adapt to the cooking interruptus of catering. We’ll take excursions at two junctures in our narrative into the history of moveable feasts, witnessing the rise of the industry over three generations in the modern era. There are some brief interludes sprinkled throughout, including a catering-style recipe for pasta salad for six hundred, tables of surprising statistics, and a test-drive of a hotbox at home. And as the parties we work become more and more elaborate—the weddings!—the menus increasingly customized, as allergies begin to occupy a greater and greater presence in the culinary world overall, we’ll circle back to our initial question: why is catering such a shrouded world? We’ll try to answer the corollary questions: who benefits from its invisibility? And what does that say about the way we celebrate occasions today?

We’ve thrown out a few key terms in this introduction—hotbox, jack stand, re-run. These are just the first words in a whole new lexicon we’re about to introduce you to, along with a set of bizarre but effective cooking concepts, and a subculture you may have crossed paths with, that was right under your nose if you’d only known where to look. Our hope is that you’ll never attend a party—or even entertain on your own—in quite the same way after reading this account.


Manchego Mayhem

Matt Struggles in the Trenches

I have one job—building the Pepper-Crusted Beef on Brioche with Celery Root Salad, an elegant little bite to be passed during cocktail hour at the Park Avenue Armory Gala, a black-tie dinner for 760 people. In theory, it’s an easy hors d’oeuvre, a thin coin of rosy beef on bread with a tuft of salad on top. It’s 4:50 now and the doors open at 6:30, so I’ve got some time to assemble this thing. The ingredients can be served at room temperature—any temperature, really—and they were prepared earlier today by a separate team of cooks at the caterer’s kitchen on the far West Side of town, then packaged on sheet pans and in plastic deli containers for a truck ride to the venue. All I have to do is locate the ingredients in the boxes and coolers, find some space to work—my station—and begin marshaling a small army of beef-on-toasts so I’ve got enough of a quorum, 240 pieces or so, that when serve-out begins I’ll be able to keep pace with replenishment demand through a forty-five-minute cocktail

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  • (5/5)
    This book was as fun and as informative as I'd hoped! Very NYC-centric. Lots of fun details about big events, and what it's like to work at them.
  • (4/5)
    Hotbox originally interested me because my husband has been a restaurant chef for decades, but in the midst of reading the book he moved into a new position where he has additional banquet/catering responsibilities. So much of what the Lee brothers encounter in their journey through off-site catering rings true to his experiences. I was so interested in how the real masters of catering are the on-site staff who are masters of the proofers, working to make all the off-the-wall requests made by the party planners come off flawlessly. I don't know if this book would be quite as appealing to a reader less in tune with the industry, or one less familiar with the New York City settings (the neighborhoods, cultural landmarks, and surrounding bucolic escapes of the Hamptons and the Hudson Valley are all vibrant characters in this story) but I certainly enjoyed it. This advanced reader addition lacked much of the artwork and I'd be interested to check out those illustrations in the final edition.
  • (4/5)
    Peels back the curtain on what happens in the world of catering. Not the average Joe's catered party, but really high-end, expensive extravaganzas. Told through the eyes of brothers who worked together in the business, from starting out at the bottom to what happens at the top. Should appeal to any "foodie" type.
  • (5/5)
    Catering to ExcessThe world of catering has evolved from basically nothing to over 15 billion dollars in just my lifetime. And that’s just in the northeast. It has become a fiercely regimented profession, demanding timing, skill and perseverance worthy of a space launch. Failure is around every corner, and failure is fatal, as the hosts and guests will never forget who screwed up and how much it cost them to be humiliated among their peers. This is the world that Matt and Ted Lee immersed themselves in for four years. They tell the remarkable story in the fast paced and excellent Hotbox.Catering used to be delivering boring finished plates to an event in a reception hall. Today, caterers daily set up their own temporary kitchens in entryways, closets and behind black curtains in warehouses, museums, farms and estates as needed. The new objective is to make catering food at least as fine as restaurant food. Because it is always only about the food. That requires platoons of specialized workers, from Kitchen Associates (prep) to sanits to servers, drivers and managers. They promise the world and deliver, every night, all year long. They adapt to absurd conditions, insane schedules and fearsome pressure. It’s a brutal living of fast-paced hard work without breaks, without a guaranteed schedule, but with low pay. And camaraderie. Team members advise each other, help each, and cover for each other. They share techniques to speed up difficult tasks, and devise workarounds out of trays, foil and plastic wrap. Failure would reflect on all of them. No one can be allowed to slow down the delivery of the event.Events are no longer a tray of sandwiches and some juice bottles. These events tend to cost more than $500 per person. The event planner at the Metropolitan Museum says she spends more on an event than the cost of her house, and tears it down in 12 hours. Time after time, all year long, year after year.Along with the caterers, there is an industry in equipment rentals. A $150 million dollar business for one company alone, serving Washington to Boston. The scale of their operation is breathtaking. The two industries are symbiotic and couldn’t exist without each other.My favorite character in the book is not one of the legendary caterers like Martha Stewart or Danny Meyer, but a totally unknown heroine by the name of Pamela Naraine. She was running a food truck when a young caterer hired her to manage prep at his new venture. She knows every recipe, the amount of every ingredient necessary for it, and how to prepare every part of it for shipment to the venue. She has the patience of a saint, helping the constant flow of new hires to acclimate and grow. She knows how to recover from their mistakes, get the best deals on ingredients, and save the company a fortune every year. And all with a warm smile, an encouraging laugh, and a guiding hand. If there is one person in this star-studded book I would like to meet, it would be Pam.The Lee brothers, Matt and Ted, are best known for their cookbooks. Here they have written a fast-paced, excruciatingly detailed narrative through every part of the catering process, from the tasting session for the client, through prep, delivery, setup, production, service and teardown. Followed by exhaustion, a meal, a drink, some sleep and the same again the next day.Oddly perhaps, the Lees only regret is not knowing the customer. The entire crew goes through this daily grind without any appreciation of who is paying or why. What reward they get is when servers come back to the kitchen with an empty tray and a spring in their step because the guests love the food.It’s a brutal living, and many of the people they worked side by side with have already left the industry. They open restaurants, with fixed menus, set hours, and careful attention to each meal. The source of this entire industry is of course overflowing budgets and piles of festering money. From ridiculous weddings to extravagant board meetings to no-reason parties, clients think nothing of ordering the best, the most expensive, the most difficult and the most involved. All they demand in return for their dropping a million is perfection. Under difficult, if not impossible circumstances. No pressure.The economics of at least some it makes sense. Dropping a thousand dollars per guest on a three thousand dollar per person event could work. So does dropping a thousand dollars on a rich patron who will later be convinced to donate a million. The same dynamics work for the caterers. Dropping a thousand dollar gift on an event planner or other potential client pays off in a million dollar contract. Quite possibly annually. Bottles of red wine to doormen get access and favors under difficult conditions. It’s all just business.At the center of the caterers’ success is the hotbox, a tall aluminum closet on wheels, into which trays slide. They can be used to cool or keep things cool, or to cook or keep things warm. Even at the same time. They use sterno cans by the dozen, to cook that salmon to perfection after it has been seared that morning back at the prep kitchen. Knowing how to regulate a hotbox is the most precious of skills, as the Lees found out the hard way when they rented one to see if they could master it. They couldn’t.Hotbox is very much a first person (plural) real-life experience of the industry, with interviews of the pioneers, and stories so ridiculous they could only be true. On top of which it is breezily well written.David Wineberg
  • (5/5)
    Fantastic look at what goes on in the "kitchen" of a catered event. I watch a lot of food competition shows, so I wasn't surprised by the off site prepping and how much work is involved. I was surprised by what goes on when they are on site in order to make the event work. Great insider look, fascinating.
  • (4/5)
    This book is excellent in that it shows a quick view of what life is like inside the high paced world of high end catering. The Lee brothers have performed a participant observation study with the goal of understanding how the food catering industry works and why it is one of the fastest growing sectors in the restaurant industry. Overall a very good read
  • (5/5)
    This was fascinating to read! I had hesitated about it because of the negativity and snark typical of “insider” exposes. But while it *is* a first-hand, years-long inside look, it is less a memoir and more an experiential-journalistic recounting where chapters about the history of the $12-billion high-end catering industry (primarily in the New York City market, where $1,000 per plate, and up, is typical) alternate with Matt and Ted Lee’s work experiences there. The Lee brothers put me in the kitchens with them ... except that’s the thing that makes this work amazing: there are no kitchens on the catering site. The brilliance of high-end caterers is their development of methods to prep and partially cook the food off-site in their catering kitchens, but then finish and serve multi-course epicurean meals to black-tie guests at venues nowhere near a kitchen (think museums, or remote outdoors). The king of these methods involves the ubiquitous Hotbox of the book’s title, where trayfuls of Sterno are strategically placed to transform the tall metal box into a portable oven, capable of fabulous results. Most of the food is over-the-top in ingredients or presentation ... or in playful creativity, such as a meatball party that included, “a lobster meatball, a chicken cordon bleu meatball, a lamb gyro meatball.”The book is a lively, fascinating read that entertained and informed me. Rather than an expose, it’s almost an homage, and it filled me with admiration for the workers.
  • (5/5)
    Even better than I expected. I've read my share of books where the author, who's promised a look behind the scenes of a mysterious subculture (be it wine geeks or Esperanto speakers), but ends up spending as much time investigating his/her own psyche and neuroses. "Hotbox," on the other hand, puts the focus squarely on the caterers: the juggling act of stocking and organizing a kitchen churning out prep for several events a night; the workarounds that happen at event venues without enough space to plate or a stove to cook with; the push and pull between the desire for delicious, creative food that stands out and the need for food that can be delivered on time, at the right temperature, for the right cost. (Thankfully, there is no angst and every little gossip in any of this.) The Lee brothers also interviewed people whose businesses intersect with catering (the section about the company renting tables, chairs, etc. was especially interesting), and include a history of the industry's rise. I only wish the book had been longer, and had devoted even more time to Matt and Ted's hands-on experience.
  • (5/5)
    A small part of me wishes I was a chef in the food service industry. I love food and am an excellent home cook, BUT I'm also the world's slowest cook and (according to family members) curse like a sailor when things go wrong. Still, I sometimes think "I could one day have a small catering business." HA!This behind the pipe and curtain look at catering is a real eye-opener. Forget cramped catering kitchens at event locations, think hallways and loading docks covered in craft paper with folding tables and milk crates making up the kitchen, And forget such basic equipment like, say, an oven, catered food is cooked with Sterno in a hotbox. Your filet mignon was likely "seared" for a few minutes in a deep fryer in a prep kitchen, chilled overnight, then finished with the aforementioned Sterno. It is apparently also possible that your pasta salad was mixed in a bathtub.I have to say I really enjoyed this book. The Lee brother's didn't just interview luminaries in the catering and party planning industry, they spent two years working in the field.
  • (3/5)
    I received a free copy of the ARC from the LTER give-away in exchange for my honest opinion. I enjoyed reading about the busy world of catering. Having a son-in-law who works in the field (in Switzerland) it was interesting to see how much work goes into each event. The only "boring" parts for me were the extended biographies of all the "famous" caterers and how they got their start.
  • (3/5)
    Matt Lee and Ted Lee are brothers who operate within the Culinary world. Their interest in the behind-the-scenes work of offsite catering led them to work for a couple of years for one of New York's most successful catering companies. Through interviews and personal experience, the discuss the intricacies of the catering world. This was definitely an interesting book and the stressful, fast-paced environment surrounding catered events provides definite drama. I can't say that I am really all that interested in catering, and I can't say that I didn't roll my eyes many times about the ridiculousness and waste of some these events, but I did appreciate the details and hard work behind them. I received a digital ARC of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
  • (2/5)
    I was expecting a deep world of interesting people and amazing stories and anecdotes from the world of catering. Instead we are given a long long litany of jargon, places, situations and overly detailed descriptions of things only restaurant and catering geeks are interested in. The first few chapters are already a giveaway on the inability to make the catering world interesting, where the authors ensure that the catering world isn't that boring and that they will show that it isn't. If you're confident in your content you don't need to announce that. In a similar way the authors attempt to persuade the authors already early on that the catering business is more than pre-cooked meat and pre-prepped dishes and that catered meals can be high quality. The rest of the book only works against that and we don't come away with a stronger appetite.What to me is the biggest problem with the book isn't it's superficiality or the way the catering industry is portrayed, is the overly obvious way the authors try to draw attention to themselves and how hard they worked and how much of a good job they did. If you want to know all the details, slang and logistics of the catering business then this book is for you, if you want a whirling tour of an unseen world of hard working interesting people, then move on to something else.
  • (4/5)
    The Lee brothers spent several years working and researching the catering industry in New York City, as kitchen assistants and event staff. They give the reader an in-depth look at how the world of catering and event planning on a large scale works. From the chopping of herbs and vegetables to presentation for say, a patron dinner inside The Frick Museum, the Lees show how the menu is planned and cooked, and how it gets to the event, where the food will be plated and kept hot or cold until ready. How wait staff is managed, where 600 tablecloths and 1000 wine glasses are found, and who is choosing the kitchen staff, is information that most guests don't think about, but it makes for an interesting story, along with little glimpses at how some clients and famous chefs behave. This was an Advanced Readers edition from LT.