When Tanya Gurrieri reached a passage in Matt and Ted Lee’s new book, "Hotbox: Inside Catering, the Food World’s Riskiest Business," detailing the multitude of allergy-related requests governing a high-end New York City event, she pressed down hard with her yellow highlighter. “It’s so true,” the Salthouse Catering owner said.
Because event caterers take professional pride in keeping their egos small enough to fit into a mini tartlet shell, they don’t often publicize the challenges they face in the course of making wedding receptions, nonprofit galas and corporate dinners appear effortless. Candice Wigfield, president of Hamby Catering & Events, likens her business to a duck in a pond: All that’s visible is calm and grace, despite the bird paddling furiously underwater to stay afloat.
To extend the analogy, the Lees dove into the muck for their first foray into narrative nonfiction, working dozens of shifts with New York City’s top catering teams. The book is a must-read for caterers who’ve long waited for someone to empathize with their searches for electrical power in a grazing pasture and heavy cream at midnight.
But Charleston area caterers who at The Post and Courier’s request gathered to discuss "Hotbox" say they hope party guests who’ve never been tasked with chopping seven hams into biscuit-sized slices will read it too.
They’re not looking for pity. Instead, they maintain that catering clients will have better events if they’re acquainted with the industry and the skills of its leading players. And after all, as "Hotbox" makes clear, a caterer’s highest priority is creating an unsurpassed guest experience.
The Lees led the one-time meeting of the Hotbox Book Club at Fifteen Church St. B&B, which was attended by Gurrieri; Wigfield; Emma Lesesne-Booth, Duvall Catering & Events’ senior catering and event sales manager; Tom Donnelly, Duvall Catering & Events executive chef; and Caroline Bevon, owner of Caroline’s Market & Catering. (Chef Christopher Hyatt at the last minute had to deal with a dinner, which isn’t unusual in a sector defined by unusual circumstances.)
Their lively conversation ranged from veganism to hurricane insurance, but a few themes emerged from the front-line stories they swapped:
1. Catering never gets easy.
Donnelly, who arrived with cheddar cheese croustades and teeny-tiny fried green tomatoes topped with pimento cheese, has been running events for more than 20 years. Yet he still isn’t blasé about what the work requires:
“I was in bed reading ('Hotbox') and I had to stop because it was amping me up, and I was like, ‘I’m not going to go to sleep,’” he told the authors, referring to a scene involving hors d’oeuvres and tweezers.
Lesesne-Booth confirmed, “That was when I literally got sweaty. I had to put the book down because I was getting anxious: It’s not a bedtime story.”
2. Caterers (at least the good ones) fade into the background.
Restaurant chefs get endorsement deals and profile treatment by glossy magazines. Catering chefs might get a cold beer at the end of the night.
But there are upsides to anonymity: The Lees felt vaguely violated when a grade school friend outed them while frying beignets for Nancy Pelosi, forcing them to surrender their hard-won invisibility. As Matt Lee elaborated, “I didn’t realize you could walk into Fort Knox wearing an ill-fitting chef jacket and scuffed-up clogs, because it’s presumed that you’re bringing lunch.”
Gurrieri nodded: “I don’t go anywhere without acting like I’m working.”
3. Caterers’ greatest fear is a visit from the health inspector.
Of course, caterers take food safety seriously. But ingenious solutions involving aluminum foil and kitchen tape aren’t always strictly in line with state codes.
To alert employees when an inspector’s on the premises, “We just came up with a code word,” Lesesne-Booth said.
“Like Godzilla?” Gurrieri asked.
At one of the catering outfits covered by the Lees, the code word was the name of an employee who was on site when his company aced its inspection. Then, as the inspector was leaving, the employee popped a carrot in his mouth, wrecking the rare perfect score.
4. Caterers in Charleston have to deal with “foodies.”
“These people were interesting,” Lesesne-Booth said of a couple who at least two of the other caterers knew by reputation. “They both work for a local restaurant, and so they both consider themselves ‘foodies.’ And they kept saying, ‘We just want an Anthony Bourdain kind of experience.’”
Nobody in the book group was certain what that meant, but couples who choose to get married in Charleston tend to fancy themselves knowledgeable eaters, and want guests to appreciate their discriminating culinary tastes.
“They have usually traveled different places, and they want to incorporate bits and piece of that into their menu, but then they also want they also want traditional Lowcountry fare,” Wigfield says. “So we’ve got a little bit of fish sauce, and maybe something French from where he proposed. It’s like this smorgasbord of weird things that don’t go together.”
Ted Lee said he’s found that menus which are customized in minute detail rarely resonate with event guests: “If they’re understanding that much of the story, they’re not having a good time.”
5. Catering chefs are chefs, too.
Lesesne-Booth recommends that catering clients choose a chef whose food they enjoy, and then trust him or her to carry out their visions.
As Gurrieri puts it, “You would never go into a restaurant and say, ‘Gosh, would you prepare Mike Lata’s fried oyster sliders? Could you do those?’ I could, but it’s going to be my take on it, which isn’t what you want. And I have like 16 pages of menus here, and there’s nothing that you want?”
Thirty years ago, Bevon said, “it was easier,” because event requests weren’t informed by nightly restaurant visits. Instead, clients put their faith in the caterer.
“In 1985, we served the same thing at every event,” Wigfield said. “It was shrimp-and-grits and tenderloin and biscuits and Mrs. Hamby’s tea sandwiches.”
6. Catering will always involve comfort food.
According to Matt Lee, both caterers and guests may have been better off when party menus weren’t so creative.
“One thing that Ted and I were kind of amazed to discover is that what works best logistically at any kind of event is comfort food,” he said. “Do what people love: Don’t make the food do somersaults.”
In New York City, there is insatiable demand for pigs-in-blankets. Those are rarely served in Charleston, where clients are devoted to shrimp-and-grits.
“That’s what guests want,” Wigfield said. “Something that’s delicious and identifiable.”
7. Caterers understand each other.
Each city speaks its own catering language: The terms which have spilled over from Spanish in the New York City catering sector are never used here, for example. But the nation’s caterers form a kind of community, even if they’re not always eager to acknowledge it.
In "Hotbox," the Lees tell the story of restaurateur Danny Meyer trying to make the leap into catering. He suggested to another caterer that they get lunch, and was essentially told, “We’re never going to be friends.”
Charleston’s catering scene is more cordial. “I don’t like when people say there’s enough business to go around, but I do like my competitors,” Gurrieri said.
If nothing else, they’re bonded together by the ability to find a thrill in overcoming obstacles so cleanly that clients never know something was standing in their way.
“It’s your job to make it happen, and make it happen very well,” Bevon said. “And that’s what we do, with a smile on our face.”