Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Wedding Food & Planning a Wedding Menu

You get up out of your seat in a beautiful ballroom, full of smiles and feeling happy.You just enjoyed a heartfelt, emotionally uplifting and amusing wedding ceremony and you walk towards the bar wanting a cocktail and feeling a bit peckish. After some mingling with the bride's great-aunt Mildred and a few hellos to some friends, you get excited as a buttoned-up server approaches you with the last few bits of hors d'oeuvres on a silver platter. It's a piece of dried up toast with a smear of tomatoes on it, trying to pass as bruschetta. That is, if bruschetta bread has the consistency of a giant crouton topped with raw garlic and mushy tasteless tomatoes. You flag down another server who seems to actively be dodging people and scramble of a piece of overcooked shrimp wrapped in limp, lifeless, greasy bacon. After you've guzzled a few gin and tonics, you sit down to a Caesar salad swimming in dressing and pre-shredded parmesan, followed by a sad, dried piece of chicken. It's on a white plate that is divided into thirds; a third of the plate is adorned with a dried lumpy heap of parmesan mashed potatoes, another third has some soggy roasted carrots and then the sad chicken breast sits on the remaining third with a sad drizzle of grayish mushroom sauce. After a few bites washed down generously by two buck Chuck, you realize that you don't want to finish your plate but your stomach is still rumbling with the pangs of hunger. A meager slice of wedding cake won't help you either.

Let's face it. We want wedding food to be awesome but rarely is it ever super delicious. The bride and groom have just spent $150 on you to have the adult-equivalent of cafeteria food served on fine china. As numerous banquet episodes of Top Chef have shown, it takes a lot of skill to be able to produce 200 identical dishes at the same time. What is even more difficult is that the dishes need to be tasty as well as generally crowd-pleasing which generally steers caterers away from the avant garde. The lucky people who have smaller weddings with fewer people and in unique venues can often splurge on really delicious and well-crafted food. However, most mature and larger venues do not even provide you a choice of a caterer and you are stuck with whatever in-house caterer you happen to be stuck with. That chef may have experience in a Michelin-starred restaurant and artfully designs wonderful plates... or she may have failed at a couple of hotel catering gigs. It's hard to know.

Nick and I got married. Ta da! I thought it might be appropriate to discuss wedding food first since a billion and a half of friends of mine just got engaged within the last few weeks. (Maybe eight or nine friends, not a billion and a half).

Yes, those are Jello shots.
First of all, our wedding was absolutely the happiest day of our lives. We felt so loved and gushy that it was difficult not to walk around with a huge grin on our faces, slightly amazed that the day was even happening.

Second of all, we were pleasantly surprised about the food. It was good. Infinitely better than the lukewarm mush we dealt with at our tasting and our friends mentioned how much they adored certain elements of the food. If we could have our pick, we would have had Revel cater, but we had such a great time regardless and the food was pretty tasty. But here is our advice on how it all goes down...


Wedding food won't be the most amazing meal you or your guests will have. But it can be good.

  1. Match the attitude or theme of the wedding. What this means is, do not have a black tie affair but then only serve people chips and salsa. I have been to extremely elegant weddings where people decide to cheap out on the food. Do not do this. It's rude to your guests. If you are having an evening wedding, people assume that they will be fed a meal, and not have to dance the evening away only to be provided cheese and crackers (yep, it happened to me). You are budgeting incorrectly if you cannot afford to feed people appropriately with the kind of wedding you want to have. It's absolutely fine to be casual with food! I've been to great weddings that have been potlucks and barbecues and one with pizza! Just make sure that it's relevant to the time of day for your wedding and the overall ambiance of your wedding. 
  2. Don't be a snob. Most catering menus are pretty normal but if you happen to have an adventurous caterer, make sure your guests can enjoy your food. Maybe save the escargot for another time.
  3. BUT don't be afraid to have the menu represent you. Ensure the food is accessible but also a reflection of you two as a couple, if at all possible. Is he a cowboy from Texas? Is she the daughter of a New England fisherman? Absolutely appropriate if you want brisket, ribs, clam chowder and little Maine blueberry cobblers. I've had friends who do a wonderful job of adding touches that are memorable and honor the couple. Southwestern egg rolls like the kind they make at Chili's as a tray-passed appetizer? Amazing! The groom was a notorious Chili's-lover so this was cute and relevant. We talked to caterers and most of them are eager to go off menu here and there to add personal touches since it's fun for them too.
  4. Feature seasonally-appropriate and location-appropriate food. Seasonal ingredients always taste better, even if your caterer isn't from a Michelin-starred restaurant. It can also be fun to play with themes.  Think about having a hot chocolate bar for guests for a winter wonderland wedding, heirloom tomato salads for a summery outdoor wedding or pasta tossed with asparagus and morels for the spring. People travel to the Pacific Northwest for salmon so we made sure we featured sustainably-caught salmon at our wedding. Why not Carolina pulled pork for a Charleston wedding or shrimp and grits and gumbo for a New Orleans wedding? However, just be sure to not go completely out of a caterer's comfort zone. A friend of ours wanted a very specific ethnic wedding dish served at their wedding but the caterer refused to allow outside food and catering to handle it, stating that they would look up recipes for Chinese suckling pig and Peking duck. Thankfully, my friend declined their offer because he feared the results of allowing a farmhouse caterer to attempt to make some of the most treasured Chinese dishes.
  5. Be mindful of how food is served. For example, if you don't have cocktail tables or seats out during cocktail hour, make sure that guests can enjoy their food with one hand. This allows your guests to stand holding a skewer with one hand and have a drink in the other. A lot of caterers should be able to help you with this request; you can have a caprese salad on a stick or sliced up on a plate depending upon your setting. It's completely up to you and your style to see if you want to do buffets or plated dinners for formal dinners. Just consider details like having plenty of extra plates available for seconds and multiple lines for larger parties when having a buffet. Ask the caterer or venue to supply heavy napkins and wet wipes if you have finger-licking food like fried chicken or barbecued ribs.
    My cousins enjoying deluxes & fries
  6. A little thoughtfulness can surprise and delight people. Little surprises can make guests feel special and don't require a huge budget to do so. Nick and I brought in Dicks burgers, shakes and fries at the end of the evening so people could enjoy some late night munchies as they danced the evening away. The late night food was a definite crowd pleaser but only cost $300-$400. One of our pals had their close families and friends provide the dessert bar. It was adorably personal to see cupcakes baked with frosting bunnies decorated on top (as an homage to the groom's pet rabbit), aunt so-and-so's homemade lemon bars, grandma's famous cookies and lovingly decorated homemade cakes. We were all able to have multiple bites for dessert but enjoyed it more knowing that it was made out of love for the couple. My matron of honor and her husband had onion rings and sliders at the end of their wedding which helped absorb the whiskey we had all imbibed. 
  7. Speak up at your tasting. A tasting allows you to check out your meal options ahead of time and be happy with your choices. Don't be afraid to provide constructive feedback and ask for other options if you don't like the food. We were not happy with the way some of our appetizers were served and seasoned so we asked for other options. The food snob in us thought we wanted ahi tuna (see #2) until we realized that their version lacked flavor and polish in the way it was served so we opted for crab cakes instead. Crab cakes feel like the 1980's version of fancy but gosh, they were tasty! We also provided feedback on a Pepto Bismol-colored sauce that did not look appetizing on the plate which was remedied at our wedding. Don't be afraid to speak up.
  8. EAT at your wedding. It is easy to get wrapped up in the events of the day and spend all of our time greeting people, smiling, taking photos and doing things. Just remember that it's difficult to be smiling, gorgeous/handsome and to dance the night away if you get peckish or downright hangry. Get a great breakfast, nosh on almonds and stuff like Kind bars throughout the day and enjoy some of your dinner, even if you can't finish the entire plate. Both my coordinator and matron of honor stashed granola bars here and there so we had things to nibble on all day long. After the ceremony, Nick and I signed our paperwork and had the venue bring the appetizers (and special Jello shots) so we could enjoy some food in peace before venturing out to the craziness of cocktail hour. Ask your caterer to box some extra food and cake for you to enjoy later as well - just in case you're still hungry in the middle of the night and into the wee hours of the morning.

Dicks. Eh?

Ultimately, a wedding isn't about the food or the flowers or the venue or the decorations. A wedding is a celebration of people, a union of two families and friends, a sharing of love and the beginning of a new family. Despite an unfortunate abundance of dry chicken, overcooked salmon, tough pieces of filet and sandpapery crackers, there should be an overwhelming amount of joy, dancing, laughing, hugging and merriment. People remember how fun a wedding is and the joy it brings - not always the food. Sometimes it's a good reminder for you to not get bogged down into wedding details and just enjoy the fact that you're getting married! Nick and I enjoyed our evening but the food wasn't nearly as important as everything else. Our enjoyment of the culinary arts is what helped bring us together but isn't the only thing that matters in our lives.

Photos courtesy of Kristen Honeycutt, the most bomb-diggity photographer ever.

1 comment:

  1. Usually I attend weddings just to taste the food offering there. But rarely I found it actually yummy. Next month we have a wedding celebration at one of the best Wedding venues Seattle. I want the best caterer for my event. Please suggest me.