Chefs Sean and Colin Kleeman, twin brothers, often descend on Asian groceries around Boston. They pile ingredients into carts, clean out shelves, then whip up creations. Chinatown grocers know their faces well by now, as they’ve made big food-shopping trips for a string of restaurant openings including Tiffani Faison’s Tiger Mama.
Lately, Sean has been tinkering with Vietnamese flavors. The delicate broths and sweet herbs suit his taste. Colin runs with Chinese. One night he made a simple pasta, cacio e pepe, but gave it an Asian spin with a spicy, sea-salty XO sauce of fried bacon and clams.
Sean and Colin will be busy in the weeks ahead. They will be taking time off from working at ezCater to cook a Chinese feast for 80 guests at the legendary James Beard House to ring in the Lunar New Year. They’re part of a small group representing the restaurant Shōjō, which will host the Chinese New Year dinner.
When I ask the brothers about the dishes they’ll be serving at the James Beard House, Sean tells me that Shōjō’s Chinese New Year dinner will buck the traditional bread course and offer different kinds of pickles instead. The brothers will also cook inventive dishes, like steamed pork buns topped with briny sea urchin, and rillettes, a creamy French spread, made from sticky-sweet Chinese barbecued pork.
To prepare for the dinner, the brothers will prep and cook at Shōjō’s kitchen for a full week, then ship the ingredients from Boston to New York. Once they fly there themselves, they’ll file into the legendary brownstone early in the morning. In the tiny basement kitchen, they’ll roll up their sleeves and cook for 14 hours, maybe longer. All for a single dinner.
Sean and Colin are no strangers to grueling work in the kitchen. At twenty-eight, they may be young, but they’ve been part of Boston’s restaurant scene for over a decade.
Their appreciation of cooking began in childhood. Their parents worked long hours, which bumped up the boys to little chefs when they were in middle school. Their creations began with doctored ramen, and they spent many afternoons watching Iron Chef on television giddily. Then they felt the first pull of love for food, learning to cook at their grandmother’s side, which gave cooking its luster.
According to Colin Kleeman, their decision to pursue a life of cooking “was more about thinking in the moment. Like, what do I want to do right now that’ll make me the most happy?”
After completing a “stage” at two Ken Oringer restaurants, they quietly worked in the kitchens of Boston’s most popular restaurants: Toro, Uni, Shōjō, Tiger Mama, Ruckus. They pushed themselves to their outermost limits and worked 70, 80, 100 hours a week.
Today their schedules offer more flexibility. They work full-time at ezCater but occasionally cook on the line when they get a phone call from Mike Stark, their friend and the executive chef of Shōjō.
Colin Kleeman joined ezCater first, in 2017. He’s part of the Partner Success team, which helps restaurant operators grow their catering programs. At the heels of his brother, Sean Kleeman joined ezCater months later. He works with the ezDispatch team, which orchestrates the delivery of catering orders for restaurants so they can cater at scale.
“I immediately knew my passion was in partner ops with our catering partners,” Colin says. “You know, Sean and I got to do a lot of catering events that served anywhere from 50 to 2,000 people. So, having that perspective—knowing how to prep, knowing what it takes to have a really successful event—it’s really helpful,” Colin says.
“Yeah,” Sean agrees. “Having that insider’s understanding. Having that empathy for our restaurant partners is what allows us to really connect.”
I ask Sean and Colin Kleeman what they’ll be doing after the James Beard dinner.
The brothers lean forward and carefully consider the question. Then they look at each other and start cracking up.
“Sleep,” they both say.
What will people will be eating in 2019?