Ever forgotten your whisk and made one out of two coat hangers?
Or shown up to an event site with no kitchen when you were expecting one and still managed to pull off a dinner for 450 people?
Or how about prepping to feed 75 wedding guests tomorrow and finding out with 12 hours to go the headcount more than doubled?
If you answered “yes” to any of those real scenarios, you must be a caterer.
Caterers are the unsung heroes of the culinary world – even though they’re also some of the most resourceful, resilient, and reliable adrenaline junkies in the industry.
Food writers and frequent cooking TV show guests Matt and Ted Lee of Charleston discovered the extent to which all of those traits are true while undercover for four years on various catering staffs in the high-pressure catering climate of New York City.
In their new book “Hotbox: Inside Catering, the Food World’s Riskiest Business” the Lee brothers write about the physically and emotionally taxing work they previously disregarded.
On June 2, they will present an even more behind-the-scenes perspective during a Sunday Sit-Down Supper at M.Judson Booksellers with Grits and Groceries chefs Heidi and Joe Trull providing courses inspired by the book.
“We really didn’t have any developed sense of what catering was,” Ted Lee says. “That’s the reason why it had been outside of our regard.”
There’s also the stigma of food made in large quantities.
“If the numbers are scaled up, the quality must suffer,” he says of his previous disposition.
Some of that comes from the frequent exposure to institutional food, like school lunches, and any other large-scale dining format, he says.
But, unintentional ignorance is also to blame.
Ted says as soon as he and his brother entered the catering arena, all of those previously held opinions viewing catering as a tier below typical restaurant operations disappeared.
“It’s simply that we viewed catering as more of a sub-culture than it actually is,” Matt Lee says. “It’s actually culture.”
Both the high quality and deft execution of the dishes prepared by the catering teams on which the Lees worked were a surprise, Ted Lee says.
“They were aiming to do food every bit as exquisite and responsibly sourced,” he says, comparing them to restaurants.
And caterers often have to turn out that quality in a different event venue every night, using different on-site kitchen facilities or none at all, along with any number of other variables working against their success.
Yet they pull it off, sometimes four or five times a day, without guests knowing any of the frequent crises averted.
One of the unexpected outcomes of “Hotbox” was discovering the vast catering community that would feel seen and heard as a result, Matt Lee says.
The goal for the book was to make it accessible to a popular audience, but a giant audience of people involved in catering have read the book and resonated with the brothers’ experience, he says.
One of those is Chris Rosensteel of The Uptown Company, which recently catered the VIP tent at Artisphere. Upon reading “Hotbox,” he says he couldn’t have identified more with the volatility and high-stress, yet rewarding, industry it described.
“Finally, a food book that I can truly relate to,” he says. “Caterers in general are under-appreciated in the hospitality business. We’re not a second-class chef.”
Having to adapt to unforeseen circumstances and pivot from one menu and theme to the next in a completely different location appeals to a certain personality of chef, he says.
“It’s definitely an adrenaline rush,” Rosensteel says of his chosen career working in the family business. “Everything we do is on the clock.”
By that he means caterers are racing the clock to complete the prep, load the van, set up the space, and be ready to serve with a smile, all the while encountering and averting unexpected potential crises.
“Every job is a competition of how good this can be and how can we get this done in a timely matter,” he says.
Chef Daniel López of Time to Taste Catering could write his own book on the often unbelievable occurrences before, during, and after his events, he says.
There’s the time he showed up for a 200-guest happy hour event and none of his four staff members did, and he pulled it off solo.
“It was the same feeling I had after running a half-marathon,” he says. “I was exhausted.”
Or when a tray of food gets turned over or dropped, he has to pull together another dish for hundreds of people from the ingredients on hand.
Sometimes the skills required at events extend beyond the culinary or party planning.
López recently caught a guest who fainted and was 6 inches away from face-planting squarely in a boiling pan of paella.
When the job is done well, and the mishaps handled without guests knowing, Rosensteel describes that feeling as an “existential moment.”
“That feeling lasts for about 5 minutes,” he says, rattling off the four events in four different locations with four different menus he would complete the Friday before Memorial Day weekend. “I honestly love that about catering.”
Sunday Sit-Down Supper
Featuring The Lee Brothers and chefs Heidi and Joe Trull
M.Judson Booksellers, 130 S. Main St.Tickets: $95, includes signed copy of the book, dinner, and alcohol