Catering to Excess

The 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

(Hotbox, Matt Lee & Ted Lee, April 2019)