We Know What You're Thinking...Catering? Like, rubber-chicken dinners?
We know you're thinking this because we were once like you. Not so long ago, we considered catering the elevator music of the culinary arts: when a chef scales up the numbers of plates into the hundreds and thousands, how could the quality of food not suffer?
So just hear us out. And come along with us, to narrow, tree-lined West Twelfth Street in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. Step inside the tall brick town house—as it happens, a landmark of American gastronomy—where a chance encounter with a trio of catering chefs lured us into their largely hidden world and utterly upended our thinking about rubber chicken and dry salmon.
We'd been invited by two friends, restaurant chefs from Atlanta's acclaimed Miller Union, to observe a special dinner they were cooking at the James Beard House, the former residence of food journalist, cookbook author, and pope of American food, James Beard. Almost every night of the year, the James Beard House hosts guest chefs from restaurants all around the country, invited by the James Beard Foundation (the food world's Academy, whose annual awards show is the restaurant community's Oscars) to prepare their most impressive dishes for a crowd of eighty food-obsessed New Yorkers and members of the food press. Cooking at the Beard House is a great honor, but no single chef who's worked its kitchen there would say it's a pleasure: the scale of the space is residential, but with hulking commercial ovens and dishwashers the ground floor heats up rapidly. That night was a ridiculously warm one in June.
Knowing well the challenges of the house, our Atlanta friends had recruited a buddy of theirs, Patrick Phelan, executive chef for a top New York caterer, Sonnier & Castle, to help them. And Patrick brought along his coworkers Juan and Jorge Soto. When the three caterers—all in their thirties—arrived in the kitchen, they had a wholly different mien from the Atlanta guys, Steven Satterfield and Justin Burdett. You've probably seen your share of restaurant chefs in real life or on TV, and know they roll with a certain flair, with brio, tattoos and piercings, statement hair (or facial hair), rare Japanese knives, their names embroidered on their chef coats. By contrast, the caterers' affect revealed almost nothing: Patrick, Juan, and Jorge's chefs' jackets bore no names and they wore black polyester pillbox-style beanies. They pulled generic knives wrapped in dish towels from fraying, lumpy backpacks. None of the three had seen this kitchen before the evening they arrived, nor had they ever cooked the recipes they were about to produce. They blended into the wallpaper, anonymous to almost everyone dining at and even working this event, but something about the way they sized up this unfamiliar kitchen nevertheless conveyed gravitas. These were Special Ops culinary mercenaries, poised for a battle.
Since there was barely room enough for the five chefs, we spent the evening observing the plating up of dishes from the kitchen doorway and ferrying deli containers of ice water into the inferno. Things started to really accelerate when it came time to fire the third and fourth courses, eighty servings each of a sautéed quail and a braised oxtail crepinette (a crispy little puck), both of which needed to be burnished brown and cooked just right—not overdone—and in an instant. For the next half hour the three caterers were everywhere at once, slammed as any restaurant line at 8:45 p.m., but entirely in control. (Satterfield moved to the other side of the serving counter, to expedite and apply finishing touches, and to otherwise stay out of the way.) Without a wasted gesture or motion, the catering chefs worked sheet pans in ovens and sauté pans on every burner—at times sheet pans on raging burners, a makeshift griddle!—as gracefully and agilely as modern dancers. Their clipped dialogue was inscrutable to us, the vocabulary unfamiliar, issued at low volume amid the clatter. Hand, elbow, and head gestures were sufficient for most of what they needed to say to each other.
The dinner was a huge success, due in no small part to Patrick, Juan, and Jorge, and the food that evening was everything the restaurant chefs could have hoped for: exquisitely delicious, perfectly executed, on a par with the food Miller Union serves every day back home in Atlanta. (Satterfield has since won a James Beard Award.)