Hotbox Inside catering, the food world's riskiest business

Matt Lee

Book - 2019

"Hotbox exposes 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 cooko...ut, 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."--Book jacket.

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New York, New York : Henry Holt and Company 2019.
Main Author
Matt Lee (author)
Other Authors
Ted Lee (author)
First edition
Physical Description
xii, 272 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
  • Introduction
  • 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
  • Acknowledgments
Review by New York Times Review

JAMES BEARD, Martha Stewart, Ina Garten, Giada De Laurentiis, Carla Hall: Where were they before they became masters of the food universe? They were catering. If this is news to you, it's not your fault. While restaurants and the life and times of the chefs who headline them have become a fixed, glamorized point of cultural interest, catering, as the chef Gábriellé Hamilton wrote in her memoir "Blood, Bones & Butter," has been stigmatized as "the most unsavory corner of the food industry, except for maybe poultry processing." Yes, before opening her restaurant, Prune, and becoming a best-selling author, she too worked in catering. Hamilton is one of few people to write about this; it's a subject food media like to pretend doesn't exist. A few years later, a self-proclaimed "punk-rock caterer" known simply as Rossi published "The Raging Skillet," which shares its title with her Lower East Side-based operation. Up until now, these memoirs might very well have been the only options for anyone curious about how those pigs-in-a-blanket wind up on cocktail trays or where those plates of beef tenderloin, a staple of weddings and charity galas, actually get cooked. But after clocking what seem like countless - and sometimes, endless - shifts behind the "pipe and drape" (trade jargon for the black curtain separating the army of unseen staff from the action and the guests enjoying it) of the highest end of New York City's catering scene, Matt and Ted Lee, the fraternal food writers and cookbook authors from Charleston, S.C., have chronicled their experiences slicing ham in prep kitchens, riding on transport vans, placing tiny tufts of microgreens on top of lamb shanks at plating stations and frying beignets to order for overfed guests. In "Hotbox," their report from the world of big-ticket catering, they write, "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 cement loading dock), and there's rarely ever running water." Once they've completed the prep work and moved the goods to the designated offsite location, the real fun begins: In kitchens that are "as makeshift as a school bake sale," caterers conjure four-course meals for throngs of diners. "Hotbox" is also an overview of the history of modern catering, centered on the book's namesake box, a piece of equipment used for transporting food and cooking it - or, in Hamilton's words, the "Sterno-fueled proofing cabinets that we've dubbed 'the wall of fire.' " The chapters on that history are where the brothers shine, because they focus on the human parties responsible for shaping the industry as opposed to the parties themselves. It's when the narrative gets into the technicalities that readers may get bogged down. The good news is that this provides a visceral sense of the minutiae K.A.S (kitchen assistants) deal with and how repetitive the work is; the bad news is that you're reading about minutiae and repetition. Ironically, this has a somewhat dissociating effect. Throughout the book, the Lees emphasize the impersonal nature of preparing food for a client - and countless guests - they have little or no interaction with. "That profound disconnect... amid all the purple sentiment on the other side of the pipe and drape was almost unbearable," they write in a section on weddings. But the reader can feel the same way when the Lees describe a salad that takes 12 steps to prepare or run down the inventory contained in the storage facilities of a major party rental company. Still, considering how little the general public knows about the logistics of catering, a fact-packed approach isn't necessarily unwelcome. (Were you aware that you can use the handle edge of a serving utensil like a spoon or ladle to sharpen your knife? That $500 a head is "pretty close to the New York average for an event when all expenses, including décor and rentals, have been factored in"?) The Lees' book also effectively - if incidentally - conveys the underlying socioeconomics of the industry, of the conspicuous consumption of patrons versus the invisibility of worker bees. Ultimately, the greatest accomplishment of "Hotbox" is that it's careful to separate catering from restaurant work, making clear how different they are. In doing so, the authors both explain and ennoble a profession whose mechanics, like those who execute them, "need to be hidden ... so the pageant appears effortless." charlotte druckman is the co-founder of Food52's Tournament of Cookbooks.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [June 9, 2019]
Review by Booklist Review

Fascinated by the efficiency and talent with which three caterers operated in an unfamiliar kitchen for an event at the James Beard House, cookbook writers Matt Lee and Ted Lee (The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen, 2013) dove into the world of high-end catering in New York City. They joined the kitchen of Sonnier & Castle as prep assistants, eventually working their way up to staffing major events. They named their book, which chronicles their four years of research, for the aluminum cabinet and portable oven that's used to transport food, keep it cold, and finish cooking it at an event. Readers see behind the scenes of galas to show the conflict between sales teams and kitchen teams, understand the unique challenges of creating restaurant-quality food for a single evening, and meet the major players in the New York event world. The authors' reverence for caterers' work ethic comes through on every page. A mixture of history and memoir, the Lees' investigation offers insights into a segment of the food world that often deliberately keeps itself invisible.--Laura Chanoux Copyright 2019 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

The Lee brothers (The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook) pulls back the curtain on the catering world, an often-dismissed arm of the culinary industry denounced for its "rubber chicken and dry salmon," in this captivating tell-all Caterers are unlikely to find stardom, the authors write, though their food is "often as succulent... as what's served at the gastronomic temples of the nation." To learn what fuels the stressful, no-glory business, the Lee brothers don aprons for a New York City catering giant, working their way from the prep kitchen to the "fiestas," or live events-including intimate donor dinners at art galleries and extravagant upstate weddings. They uncover a scrappy, innovative ecosystem, best demonstrated by caterers' near-universal reliance on the "hotbox," an "upright aluminum cabinet on wheels" used to transport food and powered by Sterno lamps. The authors track how meal delivery services of the 1960s escalated into today's parties for the A¼ber-rich, replete with gimmicks like "meringues floating through the room suspended by white balloons." The Lee brothers' evocative behind-the-scenes look showcases the workforce of innovators (many of them immigrants) thriving on "culinary triage." This is an intriguing look at an industry often hidden from the thousands of guests it serves nightly. (Apr.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Veteran cookbook authors Matt and Lee (The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen) take a behind-the-scenes look at the stressful world of high-end catering. The authors spent four years in the industry, interviewing the key players, from the planners to the chefs to the low-level assistants. Most important, they worked along the lines themselves, helping prep food and transport it as well as working the events. They explain the tricks of the trade: assembling thousands of delicacies and transporting them to galas, weddings, meetings, and celebrity events, all of which require getting the food delivered fresh and on time. The title refers to the all-important proffer; an upright aluminum cabinet on wheels that transports partially prepared food to the event location, where it will be completed. The personalities involved, as well as the sumptuous foods described, are presented in delicious detail. VERDICT The authors do a great job at taking readers behind the scenes of a hectic profession many might take for granted.-Phillip Oliver, formerly with Univ. of North Alabama, Florence © Copyright 2019. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

Two cookbook authors who once thought of catering as "the elevator music of the culinary arts" reveal the secrets of the craft.If one prepares thousands of meals at once, "how could the quality of the food not suffer?" So went the thinking of the Lee brothers (The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen, 2013, etc.), Charleston, South Carolina, natives famous for cookbooks celebrating Southern cuisine, who spent four years interviewing industry professionals and working as kitchen assistants for a large New York catering firm. The key to serving all those dishes is the hotbox, also known as a proofer, "an upright aluminum cabinet on wheels, lifeblood for caterers," which "conveys partially cooked food from the refrigerator at the caterer's prep kitchen to the site of the party" with the help of Sterno food warmers. The book chronicles the authors' experiences as they graduated from prep chefs to working the actual events, known in the trade as fiestas. Descriptions of party preparations get repetitive after a while, but the authors do a solid job documenting the history of the industry and detailing the pressures caterers contend with, from client requestsproducer Norman Lear once demanded to have a carpet installed in a room where a fundraiser was to be held because he didn't like the acousticsto the precision required to put just the right amount of celery-root slaw atop beef brioche appetizers. The authors also share plenty of entertaining anecdotese.g., about the caterer who "had to mix pasta salad in the bathtub of a walk-up apartment" to make sure he had enough for 6,000 Gracie Mansion guests during the 1980 Democratic National Convention in New York."A fifteen-minute delay in serving fish is the difference between fantastic and lackluster," write the authors. This book will give readers a newfound appreciation of caterers' artistry and their constant perch on the precipice of failure. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.