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Matt Lee & Ted Lee | An excerpt adapted from Hotbox: Inside Catering, the Food World’s Riskiest Business | Henry Holt and Co. | April 2019 | 19 minutes (5,059 words)
I have one job — building the Pepper-Crusted Beef on Brioche with Celery Root Salad, an elegant little bite to be passed during cocktail hour at the Park Avenue Armory Gala, a black-tie dinner for 760 people. In theory, it’s an easy hors d’oeuvre, a thin coin of rosy beef on bread with a tuft of salad on top. It’s 4:50 now and the doors open at 6:30, so I’ve got some time to assemble this thing. The ingredients can be served at room temperature — any temperature, really — and they were prepared earlier today by a separate team of cooks at the caterer’s kitchen on the far West Side of town, then packaged on sheet pans and in plastic deli containers for a truck ride to the venue. All I have to do is locate the ingredients in the boxes and coolers, find some space to work — my “station” — and begin marshaling a small army of beef-on-toasts so I’ve got enough of a quorum, 240 pieces or so, that when serve-out begins I’ll be able to keep pace with replenishment demand through a forty-five-minute cocktail hour.
Jhovany León Salazar, the kitchen assistant leading the hors d’oeuvre (“H.D.”) kitchen, shows me the photo the executive chef supplied that reveals the precise architecture of this bite: a slice of seared beef tenderloin, rare in the center and the size of a Kennedy half-dollar, resting on a slightly larger round of toasted brioche. On top of the beef is a tangle of rich celeriac slaw — superfine threads of shredded celery root slicked with mayo, with a sprinkling of fresh chives showered over the whole. This is New York–caliber catering intelligence at work: take a throwback classic — the beef tenderloin carving station — to a higher, more knowing plane in a single bite. Here, the colors are lively, the scale is humane, the meat perfectly rosy-rare and tender, its edge seared black with ground pepper and char, the celeriac bringing novelty, though its flavor is familiar enough. It’s a pro design that satisfies the meat-’n’-potatoes crowd without talking down to the epicures.
The kitchen tonight — like every night, no matter the venue — is as makeshift as a school bake sale, a series of folding tables covered with white tablecloths and fashioned into a fort-like U. Since there are two warm hors d’oeuvres on the menu, our crew has a hotbox standing by — the tall, aluminum cabinet on wheels that both serves as transport vehicle for food and, once it’s on-site and loaded with a few flaming cans of jellied fuel (the odor-free version of Sterno is favored), becomes the oven. Imagine the most flame-averse venues — the New York Public Library, City Hall, the Metropolitan Museum of Art — even there, the ghostly blue flames in the hotbox pass muster with the fire marshal. In fact, this one fudge, this unspoken exception to the no-open-flames rule, is the secret to restaurant-quality catering in New York City.
Our hors d’oeuvre kitchen is at the far end of a vast hallway, partitioned into a series of open rooms stretching the crosstown length of the fifty-five-thousand-square-foot Armory, a former soldiers’ drill hall, now a coveted New York venue for seated dinners where attendance runs into the high hundreds or low thousands. You could say we’re in one of the wings, in theater parlance, and it’s as dark and dank as a bomb shelter. We share this bunker with a sanitation team (one of three scattered throughout the venue), which at this point in the evening is furiously ripping open a mountain of plastic-wrapped pink crates and unpacking, in clinks and clatters, the rented glasses, cutlery, plates, and linens and shuttling them to the waiters. The servers are directed by their captain, a fleshier George Clooney type in a gray suit, talking intermittently into a mic on his lapel, to ferry their matériel either to the bars (if highball glasses or flutes), to the tables in the dining room (if wineglasses, cutlery, or linens), or to the kitchens (if plates). Clad in black pants and black oxford shirts, the servers shuttle briskly back and forth, quiet, looking like well-dressed movers; when it’s time to drop the main course on this party, they’ll resemble stressed-out mimes.
I had arrived at the front entrance of the Armory for my 3:30 p.m. call time and found Bethany Morey, the executive chef’s assistant, standing in a band of sunshine breaking through the chilly afternoon. She was a six-foot oracle, guarding an enormous, coffered wood door.
She tapped a pen down her clipboard, scanning the page. “You’re in the H.D. kitchen, with Jhovany,” and she pulled open the massive door. “Into the drill hall, then a hard right and keep going, behind the black curtain.”
I was nervous, as always, and somewhat disoriented, but relieved to be assigned to the hors d’oeuvres kitchen. I’d learned over the last few years there’s something comforting in the tight focus on small bites at the start of the evening, when there’s freshness and motion, and noise and chaos building in the air — this thing is on! Make no mistake, an H.D. kitchen can go to shit readily: canapés are typically twelve pieces to a platter, and if you’re behind in assembly from the start, you’ll never catch up. A service captain and the head chef will berate you for the duration while you flail and sputter like Lucy and Ethel at the chocolate factory conveyor belt. But despite being much younger than I am, Jhovany is a seasoned pro — a guy who tells you exactly what he needs in very few words, and never fails to flash a smile or a thumbs-up and a bueno! when he sees that you’ve understood and can get the job done. I know enough after these two years in catering not to do the math, but I’ve done it since and I’ll tell you now: feeding one beef-on-toast to each of the 760 mouths at this party would require sixty-three platters’ worth of effort. Fortunately for me, a group that large will typically consume less than half that amount with several other hors d’oeuvres available.
When I strode into Jhovany’s kitchen, everything was dialed in: white cloths on the prep tables pulled taut, dry packs and coolers laid in neat rows underneath. I was the last of his kitchen crew to arrive and all the other kitchen assistants were already on task. Wilmer ferried sheet pans of food — the brioche toasts; tiny, boat-shaped pastry shells; blistered cherry tomatoes; shrimp on skewers — from the hotbox to the open shelving unit called a “speed rack,” emptying the hotbox cabinet so he could fire it up with Sternos. Roxana minced long bunches of chives. Dutch pulled half-pint containers of flaky Maldon salt and coarsely ground black pepper from a red plastic tote called a “dry pack,” meaning there’s nothing perishable or wet in it. Gustavo unwrapped two chef’s knives from the layers of plastic they wore for safe shipping to the site — even a bundle of dish towels gets cocooned in plastic wrap in this way, to keep them together, compact and clean. Manuel dressed each station with boxes of purple food-service gloves and rolls of paper towels. Saori unwrapped cutting boards and distributed them.
In that first hour, before Jhovany doled out the station assignments, he delegated tasks rapid fire. Soon as I’d finished one, he’d have another instantly. Heading to the venue on the subway, I’d read through the menu Bethany emailed me the day before, but with six hors d’oeuvres, each with four or five components to assemble, the big picture was still a total blur. I got paired with Saori to pick the smallest, brightest-green tarragon leaves from a half-dozen gnarly bunches, maybe 20 percent good stuff. We set up next to Roxana, who was now mincing flat-leaf parsley. At another table, Manuel and Wilmer sliced asparagus into thin coins. Once we’d finished picking tarragon, Jhovany told me to locate and unwrap the pans of brioche toasts, which had been packed with small envelopes of a silica gel desiccant to keep them crisp. The air in the kitchen seemed dry enough and I was thinking serve-out would be soon enough that the brioche wouldn’t go soggy, but I’d been wrong about details like this before.
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“Jhovany,” I said, holding up one of the tiny silica packets. “Basura?”
He checked the time on his phone. “Si, señor.”
Jhovany assigned each kitchen assistant a station, and things began to come into focus. He posted at the entry to the floor an 11 × 17–inch sheet of paper listing in all-caps English all six hors d’oeuvres (more for the servers’ benefit than our own), but I was grateful for the executive chef’s salesmanship, his bon mots adding some gloss of culinary idealism to what was beginning to feel like a kitchenful of well-manipulated slop.
So, to the left of me, Saori corrals the elements for Poached Gulf Shrimp with Chili Dust and Squid Ink Aioli. To my right, Roxana snips the tip off a ricotta-filled plastic bag and sets it tip-side down in a quart container for her Heirloom Tomato Crostini with Lemon Ricotta and Fresh Basil. Dutch is on Tandoori Chicken Skewer with Red Curry, Orange, Achiote, and Crispy Phyllo, and Manuel lays out ranks of pastry boats on a sheet pan for his Smoked Salmon Crisp with Caviar, Lemon, and Chive. Behind me, Howard, Wilmer, and Gustavo collaborate on Sunny-side Quail Egg with Tomato and Asparagus on Brioche because it requires the most finesse, skill, and hands: Wilmer will run the hotbox, calibrating the flickering Sternos to ensure that the raw quail eggs on their sheet pan — each egg cracked into its own tiny individual foil cup sprayed with oil — bake just enough that the yolk is thickly runny and warm but not hard-cooked. Gustavo will invert each perfectly cooked egg onto the blistered cherry tomato that Howard’s gently flattened on the brioche and then top it with two slivers of asparagus.
Jhovany hovers around the kitchen, watching as I assemble my station. He pulls a piece of beef from my aluminum pan, tastes it, then pulls another. “Necesitas Maldon,” he says. I’ll need to shower the beef with flakes of crispy Maldon salt before the celery-root slaw goes down.
I pull a pan of brioche toasts out of the speed rack and line an empty sheet pan with paper towels. I take handfuls of the toasts, stack them like poker chips halfway up my left forearm, then lay them down on the pan with my right hand in neat rows — boom, boom, boom — reaching for more when the stack is gone. I fill the sheet pan readily (and note that the piece count is 140) before moving on to the beef layer. Each tenderloin fits perfectly in my left palm and I peel off the thin slices and lay the beef on top of the brioche, dead center. When the sheet pan’s full, I remember the Maldon, sprinkle it gingerly over the top. I look to Jhovany. “Esta bien?”
“Poquito mas,” he says, and reaches into the container for a small handful. He showers a few more pinches, lightning quick. “Like that,” he says.
I pull the top off the container of celery-root slaw — still chilly and stiff — and pick up what I think is just the right amount of slaw on the end of the spoon, guiding it onto the beef with a fingertip. But it flops over the dark edge of the beef and slumps over the side of the toast. For the next, I try pinching a smaller amount with just thumb and index finger. The slaw sticks to my rubber-gloved fingertip, and when I try to shake it off it lands entirely out of range of the target. Next attempt, instead of using the bowl of the plastic spoon, I use the tip of the spoon handle. This is more promising, but now the blob of celery is not enough. So I dip again, drop again. Now it is too much. I look at my watch and I feel my pulse quickening, my face flushing with color.
Jhovany appears. “Mi amigo. Menos grande,” he says, and picks up the plastic spoon to demonstrate. “Like this,” he says, dipping the tip of the handle in the slaw and teasing with his index finger a fingernail-sized dollop into the center of the beef, so a ring of the beef’s pink center is just visible around the edge of the slaw. It’s perfect, exactly as in the photo. He picks up one of my pathetic examples and eats it, then hands the other sloppy one to me. “Flavor is good.”
It is good. But the flavor has nothing to do with anything I did to these ingredients, and I still have yet to assemble a single Pepper-Crusted Beef on Brioche with Celery Root Salad that looks the way it should. I have Jhovany’s live sample to go by, so I try again with the tip of the spoon handle, and … close! But then the next is a disaster — too much slaw again, slumping over the side of the beef. And the next one is too little, so I dip again, which means that getting one of these looking correct is taking me half a minute. At this rate, I’ll be lucky if I have one hundred pieces by show time, and I need at least two hundred. I look at my watch again. My mouth is parched.
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I step away for a quick second to get some water from a table near the sanitation area, where there are gallon jugs of water and plastic cups for staff. I have to pee already, but there’s no time for that; the venue’s so big that the restrooms in either direction are nearly a ten-minute round-trip. Through the entrance into the next bunker, I can see one of the three dinner kitchens dispersed among the wings of the Armory tonight. Each is staffed with ten kitchen assistants and a head chef, and each will serve 255 guests tonight, divide-and-conquer being the only sane strategy for serving 760 people warm and tasty food that should remind no one of the cold, overcooked, and damp meat-plates-under-domes, skins forming on the sauces, that once defined a catered event.
I see a few familiar faces in the far kitchen — Jorge Soto, Marilu, Geronimo — a hive of white coats and black beanies. I know from the menu that they’re plating up the first course, a tapas assortment, a preset. At 7:15, once cocktail hour’s over, Jhovany will leave two of us behind to shut down the H.D. kitchen and distribute the rest of the team among the three dinner kitchens to help plate up the main course. But here, drinking this water in my state of stress, that moment seems impossibly far away.
Back at my station, I get to work. In ten minutes, I’ve got six examples of this beef — half a platter — worthy of being sent to the floor, and I’m sweating through the T-shirt under my chef’s coat. Saori’s experimenting with swooshes of squid-ink aioli on her plate. She sees me struggling with the spoon and offers up a fine pair of stainless culinary tongs — like an over-sized set of tweezers, from the pocket of her chef’s jacket. For a split second tears well in my eyes, I’m so grateful to her. The tweezers give me much more control over the amount of slaw I pick and, the more I make, I learn to fold the pinch of slaw onto itself as I drop it, to circumscribe the nest, make the threads less scattered, more mounded. I find I’m still double-dipping, but I’ve brought the execution time down to about twenty seconds, and I’ve brought down my failure rate, too, to nearly none. I’ve got eighteen now. Twenty-seven. I get a nod from Jhovany. Thirty-two.
I’m thinking about the miracle of repetitive gesture and cognition, the coordination of hand and eye, and how the mind remembers the weight of the pinch of slaw, the feel of the tongs’ resistance, when Jhovany’s voice cuts through the trance.
“Mira!” he says. “I need three guys on the floor, rapido!” He points to me, Gustavo, and Howard in turn. Something’s happened. “Go find Chef. Now!”
I look at Jhovany. “Plàstico?” I ask, thinking I should cover my station with plastic wrap if I don’t know how long I’ll be gone. He shakes his head firmly. So I just lay Saori’s tweezers down next to the incomplete sheet pan of peppered beef and I go.
Two years in and I know this moment well — it’s the instant when whatever critical task you’re performing, on deadline, is superseded by a demand for labor so much more pressing that you have to drop everything and run to where you’re needed now. This culinary triage, re-prioritizing ever-escalating emergencies on the fly, is a state of being for successful caterers, for whom every night is a different venue and a custom menu tailored to a new client. And for all the attention, all the preparation brought to bear in the previous ten months on every detail of that night’s party — the minute-by-minute run of show, the mapped-out site plan, and the cook time of the potato-crusted halibut — none of that envisions the crazy contingencies that arise when the resources are summoned to prepare and serve a three-course dinner simultaneously to 760 people in a space that was empty at 2:00 p.m. and must be empty again and swept clean by midnight.
Catering has more in common with a mobile army surgical hospital than a restaurant. The tent campaign of loading and unloading the kitchen infrastructure and the delicate, squishy food involves so much travel, a factor that rarely disturbs the tight calculations of a restaurant chef, comfortable in her own familiar kitchen. In “off-premise” catering (as distinguished from banquet-hall catering or corporate cafeterias), there’s the expanse of actual miles the food must traverse: packed from the prep kitchen into rolling hotboxes, coolers, milk crates, and plastic bins, and onto the box truck for the journey to the venue; then unloaded from the truck onto elevators or carried up staircases to whatever hall or back room is designated the “kitchen.” Just as important, there is also the cognitive distance separating the minds of the kitchen prep crew that par-cooked and packed the food from those on the team receiving it in their makeshift party kitchen, unwrapping and setting up everything, finding every item — or not, forcing the dreaded (and inevitable) re-run. And lastly, there are the servers, the cater waiters, those warm bodies from staffing agencies, typically freelancers who may work for a handful of competing firms from one night to the next, entrusted with moving and handling the food once it’s left the kitchen, to be presented to the guest. With rare exceptions, a catering chef hands his food to a total stranger.
All this discontinuity and travel geometrically multiplies the hazards standing in the way of a catering chef aiming to serve what was originally intended, that perfect plate, whose stunning flavors and stylish presentation clinched the deal at the client tasting many months prior. And in this context, time becomes a presence as tangible, fungible, and daunting as the weather — more so when the scale of the event is factored into the equation. While an epic fail at a restaurant table might cost the house a few customers, when there are eight hundred hungry guests on the event floor waiting for dinner to be served, havoc-wreaking scenarios — an electrical brownout blows power to the fryers and the stage lights; the host’s toast runs twenty minutes too long, condemning the lamb to overcooked toughness; a server faints and takes down with him a jack stand of 120 plated desserts — may become apparent only at the moment they happen, and have greater consequences.
True, the stakes for the caterer are not nearly as high as for the army surgeon, but the vast majority of events that top New York firms cater to are pretty significant — charity galas, weddings, product launches, milestone birthdays, annual board meetings, political debuts, and movie premieres in one of the biggest, richest, most competitive cities in the world. As the minutes tick down to the serve-out of the first hors d’oeuvre, there’s more at risk than just the hundreds of thousands of dollars a client may have spent on the evening’s food, booze, and labor; there are the emotions of a bride and groom on their big day, the reputation of a top movie studio, or the longevity of an esteemed, hundred-year-old nonprofit. There are the memories of people celebrating some of the most momentous nights of their lives.
Considering all that these catering chefs are up against, and regularly conquer — their nerve-rattling tightrope sprints through A-list celebrity territory, the exquisite food torture, a season’s worth of MacGyver-y kitchen rescues that throw propriety, food safety, and convention out the door because “we have to make this work right now!” — the fact that they don’t get the attention or respect afforded restaurant chefs is astonishing. There’s no James Beard Award for them, yet the food that catering chefs create is often every bit as succulent and dazzling as what’s served at the gastronomic temples of the nation. And they’re cooking with handicaps a restaurant chef couldn’t fathom.
Called to the unknown emergency, I leave Jhovany’s kitchen and pass through a dark, curtained-off concourse of the Armory packed with enormous black crates of lighting and sound equipment, electric cables snaking along the floor. I jog under a thirty-foot-tall wooden archway and into the vaulted drill hall, washed in streams of majestic light from high above. Waiters and service captains scurry like a colony of ants between two rows of long tables — arranged parallel to each other and angled in a chevron pattern facing a stage, where a technician performs a mic check: “One TWO! One TWO! TWO!”
I spot Chef at the center of the commotion, standing next to a speed rack, and a dozen or so K.A.s like me streaming toward him in their white jackets and black beanies. The tables are glittering with all the cutlery and glasses, and the presets — square china plates of what look to be an assortment of small bites — are down. Fitting with the gilded theme, the curtains defining the perimeter of the room seem strafed with gold leaf. The nature of the crisis still isn’t evident.
“All right, listen up!” Chef shouts, pulling one of the white plates from a speed rack. “You see this beautiful tapas plate? Look carefully how it’s arranged.” The group closes in around him, murmuring. He talks us through the geography. The square plate is divided into three rows. Bottom row, left to right: a Smoked Whitefish Toast with Beet Relish, a Grilled Shrimp Toast with Lemon Aioli, then four bias-cut grilled crostini in a compact pile. Second row, left to right: two thin rods of Manchego cheese, one resting on the other, forming an “X”; two pitted dates stuffed with herbed chèvre, one leaning against the other. The top row of the plate is empty, because the servers would soon be placing three shot glasses filled with more menu items across the top: Smoked Duck Rillettes with Pickled Cippolini; Black Olive Tapenade with Toasted Fennel, Chili, and Orange Oil; and Five-Spice Roasted Almonds with Cayenne and Sea Salt.
“But,” Chef says, “they can’t even begin setting the shot glasses down until we clean up the mess they made when they dropped these.” He picks up a plate on the nearest table, which appears to have been dropped from a height of a couple of inches. Cheese and dates have toppled off each other and rolled around the plate. One of the toasts is facedown atop the other and the crostinis have skidded everywhere.
“We’ve got seven hundred and sixty plates to make perfect in the next ten minutes. So divide up, swarm the room. Do what you need to do. Make every plate perfect!”
I set out for the tables closest to the stage, so I can sweep in one direction. Gustavo’s at the far end, closest to curtain, and I work toward him. Only about every third plate is wrecked as badly as the one Chef showed us, but every preset needs at least fifteen to twenty seconds of handwork. I avoid doing the multiplication or thinking too deeply about how much time and labor might’ve been saved with a short sermon to the service captains about the importance of a gentle drop. I try not to think about how far behind I am now on my peppered beef, how reamed I’ll get during hors d’oeuvres serve-out. Instead, since the primping required so little cognition or skill, I begin to revel in the vaguely disconcerting thrill of simply being on the main floor.
Unless a K.A. or chef is working an event with an action station — omelets, say — guests will never see a chef jacket on the floor. A head chef might allow kitchen assistants to steal a peek at the dining room if it’s really impressive, or if an uber-A-lister like Beyoncé or the Dalai Lama is there, but to spend a stretch of time like this out here happens only once in a blue moon — usually when someone’s fucked up, like now. The longer I’m on the floor, the more I can glean what’s happening beyond the kitchen. Who will be eating these serrano-wrapped logs of Manchego we’re setting in beautiful crosses, just so?
On the stage, a woman rehearses the beginning of a speech, introducing the charity the event will benefit. Public funding of the arts is imperiled, and her organization raises money to educate children about the visual arts, theater, music. She introduces a film about the charity. The light in the room dims and those gold-streaked curtains turn into video screens on which a short documentary begins. Teenagers from public schools all over the New York area testify that learning about the arts from this organization has inspired them to dream big.
The film ends, then starts at the beginning again. I have one table down and have started the next when a team of servers follows in behind us, working a speed rack stacked with sheet pans of shot glasses holding the rillettes, the tapenade, and the almonds to set down on the plates. The children are inspired all over again. Two tables done. The film stops and the house lights come up. A man in a suit steps forward and introduces a performance artist, who will be honored. Tall, dressed in many black floor-length layers, the artist steps to the microphone: “My mother and father were war heroes in Yugoslavia, in World War II …”
We finish fixing plates and the servers have set down all their shot glasses. The floor is emptying — of the production technicians, the kitchen assistants, the servers rolling speed racks back toward the kitchens. Only a few captains remain as I sprint through the archway, down the dark back hallway, to return to the kitchen.
“It was crazy!” I tell Jhovany. “The servers mangled the preset! I had to redo hundreds of plates!” He just shakes his head slowly, shrugs. Each of his hors d’oeuvre stations now has four platters ready to go, and the servers gather around, idling, chatting with their captain. At my station somebody has set up four platters with perfect examples of the beef-on-toast, and Jhovany shows me a near full sheet pan of backup on the speed rack — not enough to cover the duration of the cocktail hour, but I’ll be okay if I can keep up. A sigh of relief settles in my shoulders. The captain says, “Go!” The servers descend, and the first platters disappear, toward the early birds in their tuxedos, ambling into the hall.
I reach for a sheet pan, pick up the brioche toasts, and start laying them down. Boom, boom, boom. Saori sets up another platter of her shrimp. Jhovany hovers, tells her the stripe of char powder on her plate doesn’t look right. The team’s in crunch mode. We’re not the ones saving kids with the arts, nor are we war heroes. Earlier that day, I learned there’s been a flood in South Carolina, a town an hour or so from where Ted and I grew up. A childhood friend’s father has lost his home, but at least the family is all safe. Others have drowned, and I hunger to connect with friends there, to find out more. But in these unraveling minutes, the size of the celery-root slaw, the direction of the crostini on the plate, and the angle of the Manchego cross are my world. Because that’s why I’m here: to cater.
1. “Brioche” is the kindest word for this favored delivery platform — a thin toast-cracker.↩
2. The caterer’s on-site crew in charge of miscellaneous tasks including rentals distribution at the beginning of the night, setting up the coffee percolators, and handling all refuse removal at the end of the evening.↩
3. By the end of your first few parties, after ripping open a hundred triple-wrapped bundles, you get a precise feel for the tolerances and breaking points of industrial-strength plastic wrap↩
5. The dining room, in cater-speak.↩
6. A plated dish that’s already waiting at each guest’s place when they sit down to dinner. This is a pro move, merciful to guest and staff alike, shaving at least a half hour off the event. But the food must be designed to survive an hour or more at room temperature with texture and flavor Intact.↩
7. Ordered by the executive chef, a return trip of the truck to the prep kitchen to pick up something that’s been either left behind or hopelessly lost at the site.↩
8. A tall but compact four-sided metal stand on casters, for holding and moving large numbers of completed plates.↩
9. Close cousin to “brioche toast.”↩
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The Lee Bros. are the authors of several bestselling cookbooks: Charleston Kitchen, Southern Cookbook, and Simple Fresh Southern. They have written for The New York Times, Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure, The New York Times Magazine, Gourmet, Saveur, and other publications, and have appeared on many TV shows, including Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and The Today Show. They have won six James Beard and IACP Awards.
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