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.
|Publisher:||Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.|
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About the Author
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.
Read an Excerpt
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 hour.
Jhovany León Salazar, the kitchen assistant leading the hors d'oeuvre ("H.D.") kitchen, shows me the photo the executive chef supplied that reveals the precise architecture of this bite: a slice of seared beef tenderloin, rare in the center and the size of a Kennedy half-dollar, resting on a slightly larger round of toasted brioche. On top of the beef is a tangle of rich celeriac slaw — superfine threads of shredded celery root slicked with mayo, with a sprinkling of fresh chives showered over the whole. This is New York–caliber catering intelligence at work: take a throwback classic — the beef tenderloin carving station — to a higher, more knowing plane in a single bite. Here, the colors are lively, the scale is humane, the meat perfectly rosy-rare and tender, its edge seared black with ground pepper and char, the celeriac bringing novelty, though its flavor is familiar enough. It's a pro design that satisfies the meat-'n'-potatoes crowd without talking down to the epicures.
The kitchen tonight — like every night, no matter the venue — is as makeshift as a school bake sale, a series of folding tables covered with white tablecloths and fashioned into a fort-like U. Since there are two warm hors d'oeuvres on the menu, our crew has a hotbox standing by — the tall, aluminum cabinet on wheels that both serves as transport vehicle for food and, once it's on-site and loaded with a few flaming cans of jellied fuel (the odor-free version of Sterno is favored), becomes the oven. Imagine the most flame-averse venues — the New York Public Library, City Hall, the Metropolitan Museum of Art — even there, the ghostly blue flames in the hotbox pass muster with the fire marshal. In fact, this one fudge, this unspoken exception to the no-open-flames rule, is the secret to restaurant-quality catering in New York City.
Our hors d'oeuvre kitchen is at the far end of a vast hallway, partitioned into a series of open rooms stretching the crosstown length of the fifty-five-thousand-square-foot Armory, a former soldiers' drill hall, now a coveted New York venue for seated dinners where attendance runs into the high hundreds or low thousands. You could say we're in one of the wings, in theater parlance, and it's as dark and dank as a bomb shelter. We share this bunker with a sanitation team (one of three scattered throughout the venue), which at this point in the evening is furiously ripping open a mountain of plastic-wrapped pink crates and unpacking, in clinks and clatters, the rented glasses, cutlery, plates, and linens and shuttling them to the waiters. The servers are directed by their captain, a fleshier George Clooney type in a gray suit, talking intermittently into a mic on his lapel, to ferry their matériel either to the bars (if highball glasses or flutes), to the tables in the dining room (if wineglasses, cutlery, or linens), or to the kitchens (if plates). Clad in black pants and black oxford shirts, the servers shuttle briskly back and forth, quiet, looking like well-dressed movers; when it's time to drop the main course on this party, they'll resemble stressed-out mimes.
I had arrived at the front entrance of the Armory for my 3:30 p.m. call time and found Bethany Morey, the executive chef's assistant, standing in a band of sunshine breaking through the chilly afternoon. She was a six-foot oracle, guarding an enormous, coffered wood door.
She tapped a pen down her clipboard, scanning the page. "You're in the H.D. kitchen, with Jhovany," and she pulled open the massive door. "Into the drill hall, then a hard right and keep going, behind the black curtain."
I was nervous, as always, and somewhat disoriented, but relieved to be assigned to the hors d'oeuvres kitchen. I'd learned over the last few years there's something comforting in the tight focus on small bites at the start of the evening, when there's freshness and motion, and noise and chaos building in the air — this thing is on! Make no mistake, an H.D. kitchen can go to shit readily: canapés are typically twelve pieces to a platter, and if you're behind in assembly from the start, you'll never catch up. A service captain and the head chef will berate you for the duration while you flail and sputter like Lucy and Ethel at the chocolate factory conveyor belt. But despite being much younger than I am, Jhovany is a seasoned pro — a guy who tells you exactly what he needs in very few words, and never fails to flash a smile or a thumbs-up and a bueno! when he sees that you've understood and can get the job done. I know enough after these two years in catering not to do the math, but I've done it since and I'll tell you now: feeding one beef-on-toast to each of the 760 mouths at this party would require sixty-three platters' worth of effort. Fortunately for me, a group that large will typically consume less than half that amount with several other hors d'oeuvres available.
When I strode into Jhovany's kitchen, everything was dialed in: white cloths on the prep tables pulled taut, dry packs and coolers laid in neat rows underneath. I was the last of his kitchen crew to arrive and all the other kitchen assistants were already on task. Wilmer ferried sheet pans of food — the brioche toasts; tiny, boat-shaped pastry shells; blistered cherry tomatoes; shrimp on skewers — from the hotbox to the open shelving unit called a "speed rack," emptying the hotbox cabinet so he could fire it up with Sternos. Roxana minced long bunches of chives. Dutch pulled half-pint containers of flaky Maldon salt and coarsely ground black pepper from a red plastic tote called a "dry pack," meaning there's nothing perishable or wet in it. Gustavo unwrapped two chef's knives from the layers of plastic they wore for safe shipping to the site — even a bundle of dish towels gets cocooned in plastic wrap in this way, to keep them together, compact and clean. Manuel dressed each station with boxes of purple food-service gloves and rolls of paper towels. Saori unwrapped cutting boards and distributed them.
In that first hour, before Jhovany doled out the station assignments, he delegated tasks rapid fire. Soon as I'd finished one, he'd have another instantly. Heading to the venue on the subway, I'd read through the menu Bethany emailed me the day before, but with six hors d'oeuvres, each with four or five components to assemble, the big picture was still a total blur. I got paired with Saori to pick the smallest, brightest-green tarragon leaves from a half-dozen gnarly bunches, maybe 20 percent good stuff. We set up next to Roxana, who was now mincing flat-leaf parsley. At another table, Manuel and Wilmer sliced asparagus into thin coins. Once we'd finished picking tarragon, Jhovany told me to locate and unwrap the pans of brioche toasts, which had been packed with small envelopes of a silica gel desiccant to keep them crisp. The air in the kitchen seemed dry enough and I was thinking serve-out would be soon enough that the brioche wouldn't go soggy, but I'd been wrong about details like this before.
"Jhovany," I said, holding up one of the tiny silica packets. "Basura?"
He checked the time on his phone. "Si, señor."
Jhovany assigned each kitchen assistant a station, and things began to come into focus. He posted at the entry to the floor an 11 × 17–inch sheet of paper listing in all-caps English all six hors d'oeuvres (more for the servers' benefit than our own), but I was grateful for the executive chef's salesmanship, his bon mots adding some gloss of culinary idealism to what was beginning to feel like a kitchenful of well-manipulated slop.
So, to the left of me, Saori corrals the elements for Poached Gulf Shrimp with Chili Dust and Squid Ink Aioli. To my right, Roxana snips the tip off a ricotta-filled plastic bag and sets it tip-side down in a quart container for her Heirloom Tomato Crostini with Lemon Ricotta and Fresh Basil. Dutch is on Tandoori Chicken Skewer with Red Curry, Orange, Achiote, and Crispy Phyllo, and Manuel lays out ranks of pastry boats on a sheet pan for his Smoked Salmon Crisp with Caviar, Lemon, and Chive. Behind me, Howard, Wilmer, and Gustavo collaborate on Sunny-side Quail Egg with Tomato and Asparagus on Brioche because it requires the most finesse, skill, and hands: Wilmer will run the hotbox, calibrating the flickering Sternos to ensure that the raw quail eggs on their sheet pan — each egg cracked into its own tiny individual foil cup sprayed with oil — bake just enough that the yolk is thickly runny and warm but not hard-cooked. Gustavo will invert each perfectly cooked egg onto the blistered cherry tomato that Howard's gently flattened on the brioche and then top it with two slivers of asparagus.
Jhovany hovers around the kitchen, watching as I assemble my station. He pulls a piece of beef from my aluminum pan, tastes it, then pulls another. "Necesitas Maldon," he says. I'll need to shower the beef with flakes of crispy Maldon salt before the celery-root slaw goes down.
I pull a pan of brioche toasts out of the speed rack and line an empty sheet pan with paper towels. I take handfuls of the toasts, stack them like poker chips halfway up my left forearm, then lay them down on the pan with my right hand in neat rows — boom,boom,boom — reaching for more when the stack is gone. I fill the sheet pan readily (and note that the piece count is 140) before moving on to the beef layer. Each tenderloin fits perfectly in my left palm and I peel off the thin slices and lay the beef on top of the brioche, dead center. When the sheet pan's full, I remember the Maldon, sprinkle it gingerly over the top. I look to Jhovany. "Esta bien?"
"Poquito mas," he says, and reaches into the container for a small handful. He showers a few more pinches, lightning quick. "Like that," he says.
I pull the top off the container of celery-root slaw — still chilly and stiff — and pick up what I think is just the right amount of slaw on the end of the spoon, guiding it onto the beef with a fingertip. But it flops over the dark edge of the beef and slumps over the side of the toast. For the next, I try pinching a smaller amount with just thumb and index finger. The slaw sticks to my rubber-gloved fingertip, and when I try to shake it off it lands entirely out of range of the target. Next attempt, instead of using the bowl of the plastic spoon, I use the tip of the spoon handle. This is more promising, but now the blob of celery is not enough. So I dip again, drop again. Now it is too much. I look at my watch and I feel my pulse quickening, my face flushing with color.
Jhovany appears. "Mi amigo. Menos grande," he says, and picks up the plastic spoon to demonstrate. "Like this," he says, dipping the tip of the handle in the slaw and teasing with his index finger a fingernail-sized dollop into the center of the beef, so a ring of the beef's pink center is just visible around the edge of the slaw. It's perfect, exactly as in the photo. He picks up one of my pathetic examples and eats it, then hands the other sloppy one to me. "Flavor is good."
It is good. But the flavor has nothing to do with anything I did to these ingredients, and I still have yet to assemble a single Pepper-Crusted Beef on Brioche with Celery Root Salad that looks the way it should. I have Jhovany's live sample to go by, so I try again with the tip of the spoon handle, and ... close! But then the next is a disaster — too much slaw again, slumping over the side of the beef. And the next one is too little, so I dip again, which means that getting one of these looking correct is taking me half a minute. At this rate, I'll be lucky if I have one hundred pieces by show time, and I need at least two hundred. I look at my watch again. My mouth is parched.
I step away for a quick second to get some water from a table near the sanitation area, where there are gallon jugs of water and plastic cups for staff. I have to pee already, but there's no time for that; the venue's so big that the restrooms in either direction are nearly a ten-minute round-trip. Through the entrance into the next bunker, I can see one of the three dinner kitchens dispersed among the wings of the Armory tonight. Each is staffed with ten kitchen assistants and a head chef, and each will serve 255 guests tonight, divide-and-conquer being the only sane strategy for serving 760 people warm and tasty food that should remind no one of the cold, overcooked, and damp meat-plates-under-domes, skins forming on the sauces, that once defined a catered event.
I see a few familiar faces in the far kitchen — Jorge Soto, Marilu, Geronimo — a hive of white coats and black beanies. I know from the menu that they're plating up the first course, a tapas assortment, a preset. At 7:15, once cocktail hour's over, Jhovany will leave two of us behind to shut down the H.D. kitchen and distribute the rest of the team among the three dinner kitchens to help plate up the main course. But here, drinking this water in my state of stress, that moment seems impossibly far away.
Back at my station, I get to work. In ten minutes, I've got six examples of this beef — half a platter — worthy of being sent to the floor, and I'm sweating through the T-shirt under my chef's coat. Saori's experimenting with swooshes of squid-ink aioli on her plate. She sees me struggling with the spoon and offers up a fine pair of stainless culinary tongs — like an oversized set of tweezers, from the pocket of her chef's jacket. For a split second tears well in my eyes, I'm so grateful to her. The tweezers give me much more control over the amount of slaw I pick and, the more I make, I learn to fold the pinch of slaw onto itself as I drop it, to circumscribe the nest, make the threads less scattered, more mounded. I find I'm still double-dipping, but I've brought the execution time down to about twenty seconds, and I've brought down my failure rate, too, to nearly none. I've got eighteen now. Twenty-seven. I get a nod from Jhovany. Thirty-two.
I'm thinking about the miracle of repetitive gesture and cognition, the coordination of hand and eye, and how the mind remembers the weight of the pinch of slaw, the feel of the tongs' resistance, when Jhovany's voice cuts through the trance.
"Mira!" he says. "I need three guys on the floor, rapido!" He points to me, Gustavo, and Howard in turn. Something's happened. "Go find Chef. Now!" I look at Jhovany. "Plàstico?" I ask, thinking I should cover my station with plastic wrap if I don't know how long I'll be gone. He shakes his head firmly. So I just lay Saori's tweezers down next to the incomplete sheet pan of peppered beef and I go.
Two years in and I know this moment well — it's the instant when whatever critical task you're performing, on deadline, is superseded by a demand for labor so much more pressing that you have to drop everything and run to where you're needed now. This culinary triage, re-prioritizing ever-escalating emergencies on the fly, is a state of being for successful caterers, for whom every night is a different venue and a custom menu tailored to a new client. And for all the attention, all the preparation brought to bear in the previous ten months on every detail of that night's party — the minute-by-minute run of show, the mapped-out site plan, and the cook time of the potato-crusted halibut — none of that envisions the crazy contingencies that arise when the resources are summoned to prepare and serve a three-course dinner simultaneously to 760 people in a space that was empty at 2:00 p.m. and must be empty again and swept clean by midnight.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hotbox"
Copyright © 2019 Matt Lee and Ted Lee.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. Manchego Mayhem,
2. Not the Sharpest Knife in the Drawer,
SIDEBAR: PREP FACTS,
3. The Client Is (Almost) Always Right,
4. Fiesta in the Palace,
5. The Telephone Chef, the Glorious Guys, and G.I. Joe Veterans Frankfurter Service,
6. Dinner in Light and Dark,
SIDEBAR: SHEET PAN MAGIC,
7. The Big Pink Hippo,
SIDEBAR: GLASS FACTS,
8. Sixteen Hundred Deviled Eggs,
SIDEBAR: WORKING THE HOTBOX,
9. Can I Even Eat This?,
10. No Milk! (Butter and Cream Okay),
11. Great Expectations,
RECIPE: BATHTUB PASTA SALAD,
12. The Happy Couple Fancied Themselves Food Curators,
SIDEBAR: NUPTIALS BY THE NUMBERS,
13. Piercing the Veil,
Also by Matt Lee and Ted Lee,
About the Authors,