A Reunion at the Beard House
A glimpse into the world of catering at 167 W. 12th StreetTed Lee
June 28, 2019
When we say the James Beard Foundation is about good food for good, it’s not limited to sustainable agriculture, the Farm Bill, or reducing food waste. Another important aspect of our mission is highlighting the myriad hands that are helping to shape American cuisine. Below, JBF Award–winning author Ted Lee recounts two James Beard House dinners that serve as bookends to the unexpected exploration of the catering world which inspired his new book Hotbox, cowritten by his brother (and fellow Beard Award winner) Matt Lee. Set eight years apart, these dinners touch on the grueling conditions that characterize the world of high-end catering, and the impressive chefs that arise from those experiences, with nary a "rubber chicken breast" in sight.
Monday, June 10, just past six o’clock, I reached for the doorknob of the James Beard House with trepidation. I was headed to a dinner hosted by James Beard Award winner Steven Satterfield, chef of the Atlanta restaurant Miller Union. Nothing intimidating on the face of it—Miller Union was just named best restaurant in the city by Atlanta magazine, and Satterfield had brought together some of his favorite East Coast chefs for a collaborative meal. Yet I still was nervous, because the last Satterfield dinner I’d attended at the Beard House—exactly eight years and three days prior—had completely altered the years of my life that followed. Who knew what might happen this time?!
Long story short: June 7, 2011, Satterfield helmed his first Beard House event. At the time, Miller Union had been open less than two years, but Satterfield knew the House’s challenges from having cooked there as a chef-de-cuisine at Watershed. For his first solo turn, he brought along his chef-de-cuisine Justin Burdett and recruited me and my brother, Matt (co-writer of our three cookbooks), to prepare the hors d’oeuvre and a specialty cocktail. And most importantly, he’d reached out to Patrick Phelan, a friend he knew through indie-rock circles, who was also executive chef for a Manhattan caterer. Phelan came with his two best catering chefs, brothers Juan and Jorge Soto.
That night was unseasonably warm, and things really heated up when it came time to fire the third and fourth courses, 75 servings each of sautéed quail and an oxtail crépinette. For the next half-hour the caterers were everywhere at once, with Satterfield and Burdett expediting. Without wasted gesture, the catering chefs worked sauté pans on every burner—at times sheet pans on burners, a makeshift griddle!
The meal was a huge success, and in the afterglow we marveled to the catering chefs. But Phelan and the Sotos were having none of it. That was only 75 guests, they said.
“But what about that small kitchen…?” we asked.
“At least we didn’t have to build it ourselves,” Phelan retorted. He and the Sotos explained: at the venues in New York where they cook seated dinners for 400 or 1,400 people, the “kitchen” might be a loading dock or a closet under a staircase. There’s never running water, electricity, or gas lines—they’re cooking over sternos, in aluminum transport cabinets. And they still have to deliver on the promise of a ticket that might cost four thousand dollars a head!
For me and Matt, a new world opened up that night. We were so intrigued that we hired ourselves out to Phelan as $10/hour kitchen assistants, and dove into a narrative non-fiction book about the hidden world of catering kitchens.
A couple months in, we learned that before Phelan had become a catering chef in New York City, he’d been a restaurant chef in Richmond. He yearned to return to Virginia with his wife, Megan Fitzroy-Phelan, the head baker at Sullivan Street Bakery. They planned to partner with Andrew Manning, a former mentor of Phelan’s, who’d spent the last decade cooking in Italy.
In Phelan’s New York food world, every service was a military-grade planning effort…until his kitchen was set up; then it became an improv act, as best-laid plans crashed into the realities onsite, be it weather, the terrain, or the crazy contingencies that result from attempting to serve fine food simultaneously to a thousand people in a field in Southampton or a museum’s lobby.
After ten years, Patrick and Megan returned to Richmond and hatched plans with Andrew for Longoven, their dream restaurant. Finding the perfect space consumed almost three years, but Phelan’s catering background proved the perfect prep for pop-ups. The trio embarked on a series of events that garnered praise from Bon Appétit—who named Longoven one of its Best New Restaurants in 2016. The crew renovated a warehouse in the Scott’s Addition neighborhood of Richmond. The same month—June 2018—that Longoven opened, we turned in the final draft of Hotbox: Inside Catering, the Food World’s Riskiest Business.
Part of our motivation in writing about catering was our sense that it doesn’t get the respect it deserves—that old “rubber chicken” joke. But Matt and I feel like the magic that happens nightly at the Beard House comes from the fact that every chef working the kitchen is, in essence, catering—far from his or her own terra firma, yet striving to deliver the quality of cooking and style of service that represents his or her “house.” Something extraordinary happens when a chef transposes the artistry of her restaurant to an entirely new place.
I could tell the moment I entered the Beard House kitchen on June 10 that I had no reason to be intimidated. True, the kitchen was packed with more chefs than I’d ever seen, and a freezer was on the fritz, but everyone was in great spirits. The roster included Jon Sybert from Michelin-starred Tail Up Goat in Washington, D.C., and Michael Stoltzfus from New Orleans’s Coquette, a 2019 nominee for the Beard Award for Best Chef: South. The Longoven chefs were in charge of the first course and dessert, and Satterfield was grilling beef short loins in the backyard as the first guests arrived.
Toward the close of the cocktail hour, I spotted Phelan snipping shiso leaves from planters in the greenhouse for the first course, a scallop crudo with pickled green strawberries, fermented radish, and Meyer Lemon kombucha. I popped into the kitchen just as Manning was spooning the kombucha over thinly-sliced coins of scallop.
Dinner that night was a triumph, and after Fitzroy-Phelan’s dessert—a fig-leaf sorbet with blueberries, buttermilk, and rye crackers, the chefs processed to the dining room for the traditional post-dinner lineup.
Satterfield kicked off the remarks: “It’s such a pleasure and an honor to be here again, eight years from my maiden voyage,” he said, and admitted that even with the partnerships he’d brought to the House then, serving up five courses had been especially onerous compared to the one course he’d served out this evening.
“I realized tonight it’s so much easier to get all your friends to come with you, and split up the work!”
Matt Lee and Ted Lee are the authors of three award-winning cookbooks about Southern food, and the recently published Hotbox. Learn more about their work at mattleeandtedlee.com.