In 'Hotbox,' Matt Lee and Ted Lee expose the little-known world of catering.
In their new book Hotbox: Inside Catering, the Food World's Riskiest Business (Henry Holt and Company, 2019), brothers Matt Lee and Ted Lee expose the tumultuous spectacle behind high-end catering and its demanding clients. Below is a chapter excerpt, originally published as "No Milk! (Butter and Cream Okay)."
Ask anyone who’s worked in catering a generation or more, and witnessed the trends and changes, the cataclysms of 9/11 and the financial crash of September 29, 2008, and they’ll all tell you: no body blow to the economy or to the national psyche has changed the way people party in the last twenty years like the new sovereignty of allergies, intolerances, and preferences. The very nature of catering—fulfilling people’s desires— means that firms have met this new demand, devising an array of strategies to respond to special requests in advance and à la minute. In doing so, they may have accelerated the shift in the balance of power, away from the creativity of the catering chef—away from the host, even—and toward the diner, even if that person is a guest with no financial stake in the event. The shift has impacted everything from the way party invitations are composed, to how menus are designed, to how service staff is trained. Most critically, it has deeply complicated life in the fiesta kitchen.
Working the plating assembly line is, for those laboring behind the black curtain, the climax of any seated dinner event. Kitchen assistants bellied up to the work table wait for the signal, rocking back and forth like sprinters before the gun, leaning in occasionally to reinspect the sample plate the executive chef composed—the fillet placed off center, potatoes at three o’clock, sweep of sauce just so. When the chef in charge shouts, “Go-Go-Go!” the conveyor belt lurches into motion and each K.A. lays down in series a single piece of the puzzle: a scoop of puree, a fistful of fingerlings, two scallops, a squirt of sauce, a scattering of herbs. And always pushing plates sideways, left to right (or right to left), each plate building toward the archetype as it slides down the table. At the line’s end, someone stands with a stack of wipes to swab at splatters and smudges. Servers swoop in to pick up the perfected plates, one in each hand, peeling away from the kitchen toward the floor in brisk succession.
That plating line has an early twentieth-century cast—it’s fully analog, an ungainly, human-powered food-delivery system, complete with spills and curses, which is why it’s hidden behind the pipe and drape, out of the sight of guests. But once the lines find their rhythm, there’s something like beauty to the synchronicity of those first few minutes. As with any engine, this one functions best with some warmth and grease and momentum. Seasoned K.A.s on the line know that these days this plateau of proficiency rarely lasts long. Usually, within a few minutes of the first plates entering the room, a doom force of service captains in suits will enter the kitchen with a salvo of interruptions.
Chef, I need two vegetarian! Now three! Three vegetarian all day!
Is there any soy on this plate, chef? SOY, chef? SOY?
I need four gluten-free! No farro on quatro por favor!
Chef, is there mayonnaise in this sauce?
When K.A.s in a plating line are halting the train every few minutes to make one without the polenta—or one with the polenta but without the sauce; or one with the polenta and sauce but minus the lamb shank—at what point does catering to each guest call into question the very premise of sharing a meal? The expectation that everyone at a dinner event be served simultaneously—a logistical challenge whose solutions (e.g., the hotbox, the plating line) took decades to perfect—crashes headlong into this idea that almost every plate must also be personalized for each individual. It appears that success at producing near-restaurant-quality food at catered events may have also created, over time, the expectation of restaurant-level accommodations—even if the wedding banquet is taking place under a tent in the middle of a park.
In an earlier catering era, guests took their seats in front of empty plates and were attended to by waiters trained in the art of transferring portions of the roast beef or shad roe and its accompanying starches and vegetables from a large platter to the guest’s plate. Customization by opting out, on the order of “no potatoes, thank you,” was easy to implement; sending the waiter back to the kitchen for something entirely different was unthinkable. At today’s parties, the very invisibility of the catering function may create a false impression among guests that the plates marching out from behind the pipe and drape were created in something resembling a fixed restaurant kitchen, rather than on a card table propped up in an elevator vestibule: can’t you just whip up something else for me?
To be sure, caterers have never been strangers to special meals. The sheer diversity of the population in U.S. urban centers acquainted caterers there with the dietary restrictions of their religious communities. Even when meal options for a party are not explicitly solicited on a reply card included with an invitation, observant guests know: if they give the host advance notice, they can request and should receive a special meal. Providing kosher meals for large catered events, especially in the New York area, is routine. Almost all New York caterers purchase kosher meals from Le Marais, a steakhouse and butcher in Manhattan’s theater district. The restaurant delivers these boxed dinners directly to the event venue in transparent, plastic disposable clamshell containers sealed shut with a dated, signed sticker. They’re kept in a separate proofer until serve-out, at which time a service captain will deliver the boxes, their seals intact, to guests. Diners keeping kosher can be confident that no hands have touched the meal between the kashrut kitchen and the table.
But at some point in the last decade it became common for a diner to express to a server his hope (and, depending on his temerity, his expectation) to be served a customized plate according to his vegetarianism, veganism, or his allergy to any number of comestibles, from wheat to dairy to soy to nightshade vegetables. Food allergy and food-intolerance products are currently the fastest-growing category in the food industry, a $24-billion-a-year market that reflects a heightened sensitivity nationwide to the body’s responses to food. The industry loosely defines a food intolerance as discomfort an individual may feel when ingesting a certain ingredient—especially a surfeit of it. An allergy is a more serious condition whereby exposure to a particular food, even in trace amounts, induces an immune response called anaphylaxis. The body floods itself with enzymes that can cause throats to close, heart rates to drop, lungs to collapse. Anaphylaxis can be fatal.
Food allergies are no joking matter. We have a friend who left a Paris restaurant on a gurney because a waiter took it upon himself to interpret her stated Capsicum annuum (bell peppers) allergy as merely an intolerance. Another friend is fatally allergic to Arachis hypogaea (peanuts). Serious allergy sufferers carry epinephrine pens that can inhibit some allergic reactions. They never take risks, because the appearance of EMTs—emergency medical technicians—and a stretcher kills the vibe of any celebration. And any veteran chef who’s seen a severe allergy attack unfold at a party will work in good faith to make damn sure it never happens again.
But more and more Americans dress up mild intolerances and preferences for food in allergy drag, perhaps to absolve themselves of the rudeness of expecting to be served a customized plate. Chefs and waiters share stories of such behav- ior constantly: guests who are “allergic” to dairy until the chocolate pudding comes out for dessert. The “celiac” who needs his first course and second course gluten-free and then asks for a second slice of cake.
“It’s every party now,” Robb Garceau, now executive chef at Neuman’s Kitchen, told us. “Guest says: ‘I need a vegan first course!’ So we build a special salad just for her. And then we send her a vegan main. But she’s seen somebody else’s salmon. Captain tells me: ‘She wants the fish course.’ And I’m like: ‘What?! You were vegan half an hour ago!’”
Given the explosion of requests for special meals, it’s a miracle that event hosts haven’t abandoned the plated dinner wholesale in favor of a buffet, with numerous stations fine-tuned to check off all allergy and diet buttons. Nightshade-free? Check. Soy-free? Check. Raw options? Check. But many large occasions still demand the streamlined formality of a plated dinner, so over the years catering chefs and party planners have refined their strategies to alleviate the strain of exceptions and preferences on the kitchen. Offering a vegetarian option has become industry standard at large events in New York, and RSVP cards often supply options to be checked off. An executive chef can then develop a separate vegetarian plat- ing line, if needed, that operates in tandem with the meat or the fish main course. But counting your chickens is never enough in catering; the moment is the thing, and people often evolve in the time between RSVPs and the big event.
A smart catering chef will design a vegetarian option that is also vegan, gluten-free, and soy-free (or at the very least can be made vegan or gluten-free by the simple subtraction of a single element in the line—which may bog down plating but won’t cripple it). She may even engineer the meaty main course in the same way, such that any elements involving wheat, soy, dairy, or nightshades can be easily withheld. Even with the vegetarian line planned out, every clever caterer nowadays packs a pile of washed salad greens, a soy-free dressing, and a sheet pan of dry-grilled vegetables for occasions when it’s just impossible to make that one person happy. Perhaps the cleverest adaptation strategy that caterers and party planners employ is the so-called silent vegetarian option, or SVO, whereby the vegetarian option is unannounced. The sweet potato lasagna comes out only on request, when the guest pipes up as the waiter moves in to place a plate of halibut. It’s catering’s equivalent of negative-option marketing: most guests—unless they’re strict vegetarians—will still simply accept the meat or the fish because it’s the one that’s delivered. Because the silent option reduces the number of guests who order the vegetarian entrée, the caterer makes fewer of those meals, and can shave some cost and complexity from the event. (As a general catering principle, if there’s a choice on the menu between two items in a course, the beef filet or the halibut, for example, a caterer will typically prepare 70 percent of each option, of the total diners expected at the event; caterers typically bring only 30 percent of an SVO.) Offering a silent vegetarian option has its risks, because word of it can spread readily—particularly if it happens to look more appealing than the main offering. A kitchen can be caught short, without enough pumpkin agnolotti, and with the service captain facing some unhappy vegetarians.
At a recent Robin Hood Gala, the northwest kitchen—one of four placed strategically at the corners of the airplane-hangar-like Javits Center, each serving eleven hundred guests—ran out of the silent vegetarian option with thirty tables of ten people still waiting to be served. The Heirloom Bean Stew with Smoked Onions and Thyme was coffee-brown in color, downright wintry for early May, and Union Square Events executive chef John Karangis had no reason to anticipate it being a smash hit. But something about it—maybe it was the terra-cotta bowl, warm and rustic, in that warehousey monstrosity of a room—made everyone in the northwest quadrant request it. Because of the event’s size, each kitchen was separated one from another by 150 yards of polished concrete. The sight of two kitchen assistants flat-out sprinting two hotboxes, packed with heirloom-bean stew, through the north wing of the Javits Center was made only more surreal by the sight of the pop star Sting, the evening’s talent, and his entou- rage sauntering on a direct collision course toward them, until a chorus of captains and servers awaiting the delivery shouted: Watch out! Cuidado! Look out!
The SVO going viral among guests represents the best of kitchen-stress scenarios because it ultimately reflects the chef’s talent in creating a dish so special that everyone craves it. At the other end of the spectrum are occasions when people’s need to be served specially divides the guests into factions, undermining the sense of unity at the core of the celebration. Case in point was the Drury engagement, a fête for four hundred in the Celeste Bartos Forum, the soaring Beaux Arts ballroom at the New York Public Library crowned with a glass and steel dome. Entering the massive stone portal at the back entrance of the New York Public Library on Fortieth Street is always thrilling. The guts of the place are the grimy, majestic gray of a nineteenth-century tintype. Sonnier & Castle’s truck was parked at the indoor loading area, and most of the proofers had been rolled into their respective kitchens. We hopped up onto the dock where Bethany conferred with Juan Soto about kitchen staff assignments. The K.A.s were listed on her sheet under headings: Hors D’oeuvres, Main Buffet, Pasta Station, and Small Plates. Our names weren’t among them. Then Ted spotted them, in the margin, under the heading: NO ONION.
“No Onion?” we asked.
“You’re in charge of Allergies,” Bethany said. “Allergy proofer’s in the main kitchen, with Juan.” She shuffled some papers on her clipboard and handed us a party grid. Across the top was written: ALLERGIES: NO PEPPERS/NO ONION/NO GARLIC/NO MILK.
The engagement party was a cocktail buffet, running from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. There would be eleven different hors d’oeuvres passed from 7:30 to 9:00 p.m. At 8:15 p.m., four steakhouse stations and four pasta stations and four passed small plates would begin serving and run until 10:30 p.m. After every item in the menu was a note in bright red lettering:
Shrimp Seviche, Pineapple, Diced Celery, Chili Lime Sauce [NOTE! LESS Lime, LESS Spice]
Baby Artichoke, Foie Gras, Croissant and Black Trumpet Stuffing [NOTE! Use Gluten-Free Bread Crumbs].
Salmon Tartare, Dill Crème Fraiche, American Caviar, Fresh Dill [NOTE! NO Crème Fraiche, SUB Dill Aioli NO Garlic]
This was confusing. Were we serving everyone who professed an allergy? Were these substitutions and modifications to make all these dishes edible? How was it even possible to know how many guests had allergies?
“Oh, here’s another sheet for you,” Bethany said. She rifled through her papers again. “The bride can’t eat anything at the pasta station.”
“I don’t get it!” Matt said. “Are we making the food for everyone who has allergies?”
She threw back her head and laughed. “No! This is all for the host family and the engaged couple—ten VIPs. Check the half-proofer that says ‘Allergy,’ it has a skull and crossbones on it. I think there’s some roasted veg medley, gluten-free bread, maybe a few other veg substitutions in there.”
She found the sheet she was looking for and handed it to us. It was an email, forwarded from the Sales Department to the kitchen team the day before, subject line: VIP Allergies.
“Hot off the press,” it read. “New allergies . . . please print this out for our VIP Servers to carry around.”
The groom was a pescatarian; the bride was gluten-free and allergic to corn, cucumber, kiwi, pork, and cow’s milk, though sheep and goat milk were A-OK. As for the Drury family, there was a list.
NO ALLIUMS (including chives, garlic, leeks, onion)
NO PEPPERS (including hot peppers, paprika, chipotle, etc.)
NO MILK (Cream & Butter OK/Lactaid OK)
NO CUMIN or PAPRIKA
NO CABBAGES (Brussels Sprouts OK)
Cross-referencing the grid, which had been marked up with some dishes crossed out entirely, others with check marks, things began to come into focus. Although the event was a large self-service buffet, the ten hosts would have four VIP waiters and a service captain devoted exclusively to them, a party within a party. We’d be their allergy kitchen, in constant contact with the VIP servers, assembling plates upon request, coordinating pickups and drops of the foods they could eat.
And then one of the VIP servers that night was at my elbow. “Michael says it’s really important that you make the VIP food look like it’s not special.”
“It can’t be special: the Drurys don’t want their guests to know they’re getting anything different from their guests. Do you understand?”
“Sure. We’re just taking some garnishes away, subbing in some extra veg sides for their steak. There’s gluten-free bread back here for them.”
“But you really need to take special care to make the allergy plates not, you know, obvious.”
“Don’t you think having four dedicated servers hustling them plates at a self-serve buffet is a little . . . I don’t know . . . more obvious than anything I’m going to do?” Ted asked.
“You know what I mean!” she said, and stomped off toward the floor.
The entire experience made us long for what may be the next wave, a catering patron possessed with enough self-confidence to specify for his party the all-vegetarian menu (no legumes, no alliums!) of his dreams, what he truly prefers and loves to eat, but with an SMO—a silent meat option. Such a sensibility is sure to arrive soon, if it hasn’t already.
Excerpted from Hotbox: Inside Catering, the Food World's Riskiest Business by Matt Lee and Ted Lee, published by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2019 by Matt Lee and Ted Lee. All rights reserved.