“This is, like, our debut as authors,” says Matt Lee, seated at a table in his brother Ted’s loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It’s a surprising comment, coming from the coauthor of three successful cookbooks—especially since The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern, and The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen all garnish their recipes with atmospheric stories about Charleston, S.C., the brothers’ hometown. During their 25-year professional partnership, Matt and Ted have also written about food, cooking, and travel for such publications as Food & Wine, the New York Times, Saveur, and Travel & Leisure. So they’re not exactly newcomers to either writing or publishing.
But the siblings agree that they faced a new set of challenges in their latest collaboration, Hotbox: Inside Catering, the Food World’s Riskiest Business, which Holt will publish in April. One might think—from the book’s sweat-inducing accounts of the Lees work under frantic pressure as kitchen assistants and prep chefs for Sonnier & Castle, caterer of some of Manhattan’s swankiest parties—that the research was the toughest part. Not so, Matt says: “The writing process is so different from a cookbook. Cookbook writing is like writing poetry: tiny little pieces. You can spend a day producing three paragraphs, and then it gets done and you move on to the next discrete challenge. With Hotbox, we were constantly rereading our interviews, our notes, our individual writing forays. Just assessing what you have is such an important part of writing long-form nonfiction. It was like running in quicksand; it felt so hard to make progress.”
Their progress was facilitated, paradoxically, when Ted’s wife, the sculptor E.V. Day, won the prestigious Rome Prize and he tagged along on her overseas fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. “I was in a stimulating place with a beautiful library, and my project had nothing to do with them,” he recalls. “The three years of research were really intense; now I could focus and circle back on things. It was actually good to have that distance—and to have a six-hour head start on the day on Matt.”
“That means we woke up at more or less the same time,” his brother interjects. “Because I have kids, so I’m up at five in the morning. Ted’s still a teenager who wakes up at 10 and is productive by 11, on a good day.”
Fraternal jabs like that spike the brothers’ easy back-and-forth just often enough to express their distinct personalities. Matt, 48, the elder by two years, tends to lead the conversation; he’s articulate and shrewd about the business imperatives of freelancing and the shaping of a publishing career. Softer spoken, though by no means shy, Ted frequently interjects to elaborate on his brother’s comments. He’s as likely to offer an anecdote about a person as analysis of a trend, which isn’t so surprising for a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who came to New York planning to write fiction before getting sidetracked into food.
After years of presenting themselves as a unit in their journalism, they thought perhaps Hotbox would be the book to convey their differences, Matt says. “When we mapped out what the chapters should be in terms of topics, we realized it more or less alternated between Ted’s experiences and mine.”
“We tried not to work the same parties and the same prep shifts,” Ted explains.
“We struggled and discussed it a lot with our editor, Gillian Blake,” Matt continues. “Should we use the royal we that’s typical of our food and travel writing? That didn’t seem quite right. At one point we experimented with more clearly defining each of our personalities.”
“But it was kind of exhausting to have these two very different characters on the page,” Ted says.
“So, for the convenience of the reader, we just used I throughout and subtitled each chapter to tell you who I is,” Matt adds.
They struggled as well with the third-person chapters chronicling the evolution of catering from the rubber-chicken stereotype to sophisticated, elegant food made possible for large-scale gatherings by the eponymous hot box, an aluminum cabinet that gets partly cooked food from the caterer’s kitchen to an event and finishes the job over cans of Sterno.
“We knew we had to address the question of how we got to this weird system of cooking over Sterno in the 21st century,” Matt says. “Once we dug into it, we realized we had people we could interview from the 1960s and ’70s, people who were at the forefront in the ’80s and ’90s who were still practicing; it was clear we had to have the whole thread. We attempted a single history chapter at one point.”
“Oh my gosh, it was like 100 pages!” Ted says. “Then it was three chapters, and that seemed like too much of an interruption to the other narrative threads.”
Eventually, with Blake’s help, they found a way to weave catering’s history into the first-person material to amplify and enrich it. “Working with Gillian was like those conversations about structure and tone I used to have at Iowa,” Ted says. “It was a dream compared to cookbooks, where you hand in your text and it goes straight to production.”
Ted corrects him. “It wasn’t like that for our first cookbook [The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook] at Norton with Maria Guarnaschelli. There was no detail she didn’t worry.”
“She would take a chapter with 10 recipes to her country house, host eight people, and cook from it,” Ted remembers.
“And call you at two in the morning and say, ‘We have to talk!’ ” Matt adds.
At Clarkson Potter, which published Simple Fresh Southern and Charleston Kitchen, Ted remembers, “It was more like, ‘Here’s the schedule, we like the recipes, they’re going to copy edit.’ ”
“It was dismaying how disengaged the editorial structure was from the content,” Matt continues. “With Gillian, having someone actually parse what you’re saying, be able to talk about the approach—narrator, point of view, tone, all those things—it was fantastic.”
Are the Lee brothers done with cookbooks?
“I think so,” Matt says. “If you’re a cookbook author, the question is always, ‘What’s your next cookbook?’ and it comes along pretty fast after the previous cookbook is put to bed. We met Sonnier & Castle executive chef Patrick Phelan when we were pondering what was next after Charleston Kitchen. This whole world opened up for us—this culture that we didn’t know anything about and, we recognized, that the rest of the world didn’t know about either. It seemed so much more exciting to spend the next few years on that.”
“We’re super proud of our three cookbooks,” Ted says. “They each have a different perspective; they metabolize what it’s like to grow up in Charleston, learn to love this food, and get into it as deeply as we have. After that, I want to hear other people’s stories; there are so many great stories being told now out of the South by younger people and more diverse voices.”
“I love to think we could do anything,” Matt adds. “And hopefully Hotbox gets us halfway there.”