…[food writers Matt Lee and Ted Lee] went undercover as catering cooks, and their dive into the world of mercenaries who work the fanciest parties in town has produced the new book “Hotbox: Inside Catering, the Food World’s Riskiest Business” (Henry Holt & Company, 2019). It’s a revelatory, detail-rich and often breathless examination of a cutthroat world where the demanding clients include billionaires and celebrity brides but the cooking conditions resemble a mobile Army hospital.
The subject is a ripe one. A $12 billion-dollar-a-year industry in the United States, catering is rarely examined by food journalists or considered by diners, who are more focused on restaurants. Its influence is quiet but powerful.
The art of catering centers on creating scores of identical plates and serving them to guests within a 15-minute window.CreditRachel Barrett for The New York Times
What’s new about catering?
The biggest headaches for modern caterers, the brothers posit, are food preferences and intolerances dressed in food-allergy drag. The elaborate assembly-line system designed to deliver hundreds of perfect plates in a 15-minute window is getting gummed up with special requests. Waiters face a barrage of questions from guests who want to know whether the main course contains soy or nightshades, or if the vegetarian option is laced with dairy.
I had to laugh at this part, I delivered a dessert order for a catering today - party of 10 people with 11 foods on the allergy list! That’s an unusually high ratio … Her allergies are soy, almonds, dairy, apple, cashews, cauliflower, legumes, asparagus, other allergies are gluten, dairy, garlic, peanuts. So that was nerve-wracking because it was a lot more work to make everything special rather than being able to use tried-and-true recipes or pull a few quarts of buttercream from the freezer. Oh, and she wanted two different cakes, so I had the privilege of making two wheat, milk, and soy-free cakes! Good test of my skills, I guess
Catering is indeed a different animal from restaurant cooking. Catering is more predictable but sometimes you’re cooking under a tent in the mud or doing huge numbers for corporate events. 20 years ago when I was at my first restaurant job (we also did catering), lunch for 500 at Microsoft was the biggest number I’d seen, now I have a friend who does parties of 5000 for Facebook. And you have to consider travel and holding - that same friend likes to bitch about the previous chef having put buerre blanc on the menu. Emulsified butter sauces aren’t practical to make ahead and reheat! I worked with him a bit last summer, it was an impressive operation on many levels. They make most things from scratch when so many other caterers are making brownies from a box.