The Lee brothers praise the versatility of that catering biz workhorse, the hotbox.
Our kitchen tools, like our fig preserves, tend to be handcrafted in small batches. Our knives were ground by South Carolina bladesmith Quintin Middleton, our skillets forged and polished by Charleston’s Smithey Ironware to a mirror-like sheen. But a few years ago, we took a detour from our own kitchens into the wild world of special-event catering, a brass-knuckle realm where our “kitchen” was the loading dock of a museum one night and an out-of-service freight elevator at a public library the next. We came to appreciate a range of factory-made, industrial-grade gear: Cambros, sauce guns, and most important, hotboxes. From this latter workhorse of the trade we took the title of our new book, Hotbox: Inside Catering, the Food World’s Riskiest Business.
What is a hotbox? The term refers to a few things (and not all of them cooking-related), but we’re talking about the tall, aluminum cabinets on wheels with graduated notches on their interior walls that allow sheet pans of food to be stored inside. Also known in the trade as transport cabinets or proofers, they’re not only the vehicle that all catered food travels to the venue in. Once on site, they’re emptied and transformed, using more sheet pans and Sterno cans (against all we’re taught in culinary school), into multilevel ovens that heat and cook all the food to serving temperature. That’s right: Your filet mignon, your wild rice, and your roasted vegetable medley may have been cooked hours earlier or even the day before. And it all gets rewarmed and finished over canned heat in hotboxes.
To novice catering chefs like us, the hotbox is a frighteningly analog device, with no temperature gauge, only your senses as a guide—oh, and the lamb chops and arctic char for a couple hundred or more guests inside. Chefs that run them typically have “the touch”: years of experience and the feel for how far open to leave the cabinet door, just enough to get oxygen to feed the flames, but not so far open that you lose any heat (once we committed the cardinal sin of fully shutting the door and snuffing out an entire box). It may seem primitive, but it’s beautifully efficient for serving hordes, and we’ve taken to using a half-hotbox (same principle, just shorter) around the home whenever we’re cooking for a dozen or more. The top makes a nice prep surface—a hot one if needed—and you can create zones inside, with warmer food at the top, room-temp items in the middle, and a cold zone at the bottom under a sheet pan of crushed ice (dry ice, preferably). And there’s also this trick, familiar to any catering chef—it’s a mobile bussing station, a way to hide all the cleared plates from the guests until they’re gone!