Matt and Ted Lee have the catering world abuzz with their new book Hotbox: Inside Catering, the Food World’s Riskiest Business. The two food writers went undercover, working as event chefs for two years to get the inside scoop on an industry that nearly everyone has interacted with but few truly understand. We got the chance to sit down with them and learn more about their journey into catering.
Nowsta: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. First, what made you decide to write a book on catering? And why did you go undercover to do it?
Ted Lee: Our background is in cookbooks, so we have a test kitchen where we develop recipes meant to serve 2, 4, 8, maybe 12 people. And as food journalists, we’ve spent time in restaurant kitchens doing stories on chefs.
Around 2012, we were at an event at the James Beard House in New York, and we had the opportunity to observe three catering chefs from Sonnier & Castle in action: Patrick Phelan, their head chef, and two of his top proofers, Juan and Jorge Soto. We noticed that what they were doing was completely different than cooking at home or in a restaurant kitchen. I don’t know if you’ve seen the kitchen at the James Beard House, but it’s tiny. And these guys showed up having never cooked there, not even knowing what the menu was going to be. We thought, “Oh my god, these guys are walking into a nightmare!”
But they were supremely confident and executed the dinner at a high level by being amazingly resourceful. We noticed at one point that they didn’t have enough griddle space, so they just put sheet pans on top of burners to make more. They had an intuitive communication style that we’d never seen in a restaurant kitchen or in our own kitchen.
So afterwards, we went up to them and said, “Wow, you guys were amazing!” And they go, “Oh, that was nothing, that was just 75 guests. We don’t start sweating until it’s 750.” We were stunned. I said, “How do you even do something like that in that tiny kitchen?” They go, “That kitchen was better than anything we work in. It had equipment built in, running water, it was climatized, there was air conditioning -- at 99% of our off-premise events, there is no kitchen. We’re usually bringing the kitchen, building it, cooking the food, and leaving in eight hours.”
That’s when we knew we had a story. We asked the team if we could trail them, but they said, “Well, space is tight and there isn’t really room in the kitchen for anyone who isn’t working, so it would be better if you punched the clock and joined the team.” So we said yes and decided to embed with them.
Nowsta: You mention being astonished that caterers don’t get the same attention as restaurants, despite having a more difficult job in many ways. What’s the one thing you would want the food world to know about catering in order to change that?
Matt Lee: We want them to know everything! Anyone in the food production world should know about catering, because the unique challenges caterers face are so fascinating -- and for the most part, accomplished heroically on a day-to-day basis.
Plus, restaurant chefs are more and more often being hired at off-site events like festivals, pop-ups, and private parties, where they might be able to use some of these techniques. You have to be flexible like a caterer to succeed at those jobs -- you can’t get too comfortable or complacent in the safe zone of your own kitchen. You have to be a bit more adaptable and improvisational. Not every chef can do it.
As for why catering has remained somewhat invisible in the food world -- there are different layers of invisibility. One is that these events are usually celebratory nights and the emphasis is on the people celebrating. In that context, the chef’s role is more in the background. In restaurants, it’s different. The kitchen is often visible and the ego of the chef is almost part of the furniture -- it’s one of the reasons people go to restaurants. Another layer is put in place by the caterers themselves as a protective function. You’re hustling so hard and putting out so many fires, you may not want too much scrutiny on what you’re doing. Catastrophe is always hovering nearby for a caterer, so a certain level of invisibility is nice.
Nowsta: On the flip side, what’s the one thing you’d tell event planners and guests about how to make life easier for caterers?
Ted Lee: If you’re hosting a party and engaging a caterer, and you’ve established that you like their food, just trust them to do what they do well. Don’t push them into custom territory where they’re doing dishes they’ve never done before -- that’s a recipe for failure. These chefs have a ton of experience in general, so the best way to achieve success is to work together with them on a mutual vision of what the event will be.
Where we’ve seen things go wrong is when there’s too much distance between everyone involved -- the client, the chef, the event planner, and the salesperson. That leads to situations where the host may not realize they’re asking for something that doesn’t make sense -- like, if you ask for tuile cookies and a raw bar on Labor Day weekend when it’s 100 degrees, everything is going to be melting and it’ll turn out horrible. Nobody wants that. If you can get the kitchen and host talking to each other, they can come up with something equally luxurious that’ll turn out better.
On the guests’ side, just be aware that timing is everything with catering. There’s a run of show that the kitchen gets, which times the dropping of every course. So if the service captain is asking guests to be seated and they don’t listen, the guests need to understand that the quality of the food may suffer, so they should probably sit their asses down. If you’re told to give a five-minute toast, keep it to five minutes. If Uncle Timmy gets drunk and goes over five minutes, get him off the stage, because there’s food that’s scheduled to arrive at a precise time.
Don’t get me wrong! Caterers can adapt when things go off schedule. But the fact is, deviations create more chaos in the kitchen and will likely impact the quality of the food.
Nowsta: Our clients tell us one of the things that makes catering hard is the fact that if you mess up, you can compromise the client’s entire wedding or gala, whereas if you mess up at a restaurant, you’re at most risking one person’s meal. What’s your advice to caterers on dealing with clients when they make a mistake?
Ted Lee: Sean Driscoll had a great quote about this: “Every night is opening night. If there’s not enough salt in the salad dressing, there’s nothing I can do except apologize.”
And it’s true -- you have choice but to apologize and admit you dropped the ball. But I would hope that the client would understand that there were so many other ways you didn’t drop the ball that they never even saw. So hopefully it’s nothing major.
Matt Lee: You also have to learn to roll with the punches and make the best of it. We actually tell a story in the book about this from Ted’s own wedding. A whole platter’s worth of chipotle basted barbecue salmon sauce went down the back of his seersucker suit jacket! It was one of Danny Meyer’s Blue Smoke restaurants catering the event, and the crew handled it beautifully.
Ted Lee: Yeah, they knew exactly what to do. The captain swooped in, took the jacket, and disappeared. My wife and I are laughing deliriously -- this jacket was the last thing we cared about on our wedding day. But the captain comes back and gives me a card for Meurice Garment Care and tells me it’ll all be taken care of. A week later, I’m on my honeymoon, and I get a call from Meurice saying, “Hi Ted, your jacket is ready to be picked up.” I go, “My jacket? No way, that thing is gone.” He assures me it’s good as new, and explains to me that Danny Meyer sends him every recipe, so they knew exactly what was in that salmon sauce and how to get it out. Sure enough, I picked it up, and I’m still wearing that jacket 11 years later. There’s no one you’d rather have handle a situation like that than a caterer.
Nowsta: In the book, you use this expression “sheet pan magic” to describe the MacGyver-like solutions caterers improvise on the spot during events. What’s a memorable example you saw during your time undercover?
Matt Lee: Here’s a good one. In a catering kitchen, you’re constantly having to strain things because the food is giving off too much liquid when it’s cooking -- the last thing you want is a soggy plate. But there are never enough strainers to go around at the fiesta site. So event chefs are always pulling this trick where they’d take a ball point pen and poke a bunch of holes in an aluminum sheet pan to create a makeshift strainer. It’s one of the quickest, cleverest things you can do to strain things in large quantities.
Another classic example: It’s the end of a wedding and the food and equipment are packed up and in the truck, but then the host couple will show up and request a plate. You know, they’ve been running around all night, haven’t had a chance to eat, and want to finally get some food for themselves. One time when this happened, our crew turned a milk crate into a searing station with a couple of Sternos and a sheet pan. They grabbed a plate of leftovers and heated it up with a bowl over it so the couple could get a warm plate. By any means necessary!
Ted Lee: The whole thing is understanding how heat interacts with water, protein, and cellulose. If you get that, you get how to cook. If you understand caramelization, so much the better. The essence of a champion caterer is to understand that so intuitively that you can cook by just watching, listening, and touching.
Nowsta: Last question. So much of the book is about what makes catering so difficult. What are the rewarding aspects? If I’m an aspiring chef, why should I want to work in catering?
Ted Lee: Tons of reasons! One is that the money is usually better in catering, especially when you specialize. If you carve out a really cool niche for yourself, you can both satisfy your creative impulses and upcharge for it -- whether it’s being the vegan caterer, the design-minded caterer, the seafood expert, or whatever you want to do.
Plus, life is never boring in catering. If you don’t like being bogged down in the same work night after night, this career is for you. There are so many different types of events and so many different types of people you’ll meet. If you like meeting new people every night, then you’ll love catering. There are always familiar faces to comfort you, but there will also always be strangers to both meet and work with.
And finally, the last thing I’d mention is the teamwork. If soccer is more your sport, then catering is for you. Restaurants are more like baseball -- it’s about each individual getting their chance to step up to the plate. But catering is all about teamwork.