Undercover and Overworked: Inside the New, Nerve-Racking World of Catering


One June night in 2011, the food-writing brothers Matt and Ted Lee showed up to support a fellow Southerner who was cooking at the James Beard House.

The 1840s brick townhouse in Greenwich Village where Beard once lived is a showplace for chefs looking for validation from the foundation that runs it. But it’s a notoriously stressful place to cook. The kitchen is hot and small, with limited access for prepping food. If you screw up in front of the influential guests, a shot at a national reputation can be dashed before dessert is served.

Their friend, the chef Steven Satterfield of Miller Union restaurant in Atlanta, had to knock out 80 servings each of sautéed quail and braised oxtail crépinette, delicate dishes that can overcook in a minute. So he enlisted help from three of the best catering cooks in the city. As the Lee brothers watched, they unzipped their backpacks, unrolled the dish towels that held their knives and attacked the kitchen like Navy SEALs swarming a ship commandeered by Somali pirates.

Later that night over drinks, the catering cooks said the dinner had been as easy as rolling out of bed. Try cooking 1,400 lamb chops to a perfect medium-rare at the same time, using nothing but sheet pans, Sterno and an upright aluminum cabinet on wheels called a hot box.

Sometimes the meals are as low-stakes as a snack between sessions at a mind-numbing conference. Other times, a badly prepared $2,000-a-plate meal can hurt a charity that hoped to open wallets over short ribs with horseradish cream.

It’s also an era of ultra-customization, which is the antithesis of catering. Couples don’t want a traditional fairy-tale wedding, they want a tale that’s never been told, the Lees write. Caterers are handed elaborate and often confusing menus that are meaningful to the couple but daunting to execute.

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.

“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,” they write.

A nice side effect of the brothers’ time in the trenches is that they have become better home cooks. Throwing a dinner party for 10, once a stressful proposition, is a breeze.

Their kitchens are better organized before and during a party, and they’ve started using the building blocks of a good catering kitchen: square, stackable Cambro containers and small plastic deli tubs. They’ve also become more comfortable making food ahead of time, and don’t worry about whether it’s kept at the absolute safest temperature.

“We are so much more confident now because we’ve seen what’s possible on a huge scale,” Matt Lee said.

And they’ve become better guests at catered events. When the cocktail hour ends and the chime rings for everyone to take their seats, they do.

“When the service captain tells you sit, stop talking and sit,” Ted Lee said. “It’s critical. The quality of the salmon is at stake.”



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