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VOL. 43 | NO. 17 | Friday, April 26, 2019

Inside look at non-glamorous world of high-end catering

By Terri Schlichenmeyer

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As conferences go, this one was successful. Work was accomplished with minimal dissent, officers were elected and consensus was reached. Afterward, in elegant surroundings, you dined together on artfully presented food in taste-combinations you never imagined and desserts that made you want seconds.

It was the perfect end to a good confab, and in “Hotbox” by Matt Lee & Ted Lee, you’ll see how meal came to meeting.

A few years ago, following a sumptuous dinner at Manhattan’s James Beard House – a restaurant that invites elite guest chefs to feature their creations – Matt Lee and Ted Lee met Patrick Phelan, then-executive chef from New York catering firm Sonnier & Castle. The Lees didn’t know much about catering then and, as cookbook authors, they were intrigued. They asked Phelan for jobs in his kitchen.

It wasn’t long before they were chopping, dicing and serving.

Catering, the Lees say, wasn’t generally available until the 1960s when New York entrepreneur Donald Bruce White started a fine-food delivery service that somewhat resembled today’s phone-in-for-delivery methods of dining. Before White’s business launched, dinner events were held at hotels or venues that already served food, because eating in a library or museum “would have violated some sense of decorum.”

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

by Matt Lee & Ted Lee

c.2019, Henry Holt and Company

$28

288 pages

Early catering didn’t cost much, sometimes only a few dollars per plate, a fact that New York magazine pointed out. Today, it’s common for high-end event coordinators to budget $1,000 per person or more for upscale soirees.

If you imagine that catering is a glamorous chance to rub elbows with the rich, you’re only partially right. In Phelan’s kitchen, the Lees worked, learning to braise, sear, mince and stage plates that are Instagram-worthy. They noted food waste, when plates didn’t meet standards of perfection. They pulled 12-hour or longer shifts, were witnesses to (and the cause of) last-minute disasters in the “back-of-house,” and they learned how rental companies go hand in hand with catering.

And they discovered the reason for the biggest change in catering for special events.

So, what’s for dinner and where’s it coming from? Those are two of the things you’ll keep coming back to, when you read “Hotbox.”

And yet, while hungry readers will get hungrier because of food descriptions here, food’s not the focus. This book will satisfy your curiosity about an industry that’s relatively unnoticed. While names are sometimes named, there’s really very little tell-all in it. Instead, authors Matt Lee and Ted Lee share the stories of high-end events, exotic meals and the work that went into the grub, outside of a traditional kitchen.

It’s a tale of long shifts spent doing tedious work, delicate dances with demanding clients, mind-boggling details of event-support, linens and tables, and the sheer logistics of feeding hundreds of people from a stainless steel box.

For foodies, this book takes the silver cloche off in multipage flourish. For the curious, or for anyone who’s ever eaten a catered meal, “Hotbox” will be eye-opening and fun to read.

If you’re just someone who likes food, this is something to put on your plate.

Terri Schlichenmeyer’s reviews of business books are read in more than 260 publications in the U.S. and Canada.

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