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 requests—producer 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 acoustics—to the precision required to put just the right amount of celery-root slaw atop beef brioche appetizers. The authors also share plenty of entertaining anecdotes—e.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.