I’ve always been a guest, never a bride, so I can say this objectively: Only airline food has a worse reputation than what’s served at weddings. Captive audiences can’t be choosy.
While air fare will always be a joke, wedding food is evolving thanks to what might be called “no trend left behind.” Five years ago brides could get away with putting their budget before their guests’ palates. Now all the innovations changing the way America eats are being adopted by caterers and wedding planners — and happy couples themselves — who are taking cues from food television, the farm-to-table phenomenon, the organic/seasonal/sustainable movement and every other flash in the kitchen. Even food trucks are rolling up to the fanciest receptions. (Cupcakes, however, are apparently off the table.)
“People want to push the wedding boundaries,” says Andrea Duty of Bake Sale in Austin, who caters to couples who dislike cake and want a less hidebound dessert with a more individualistic feel. “This generation has almost a competitive attitude. They want their weddings to land on the big wedding blogs, such as Style Me Pretty and 100 Layer Cake.”
That means food with flair. A series of small plates, rather than salad followed by chicken or fish and a slice of dazzling but dry cake. Avegetarian menu. A whole pig roasted in view of the guests. A dessert buffet loaded with just pies or an array of one-bite sweets.
“People’s expectations are higher even when there are 300 or 400 guests,” says Peter Callahan, a top New York caterer who wrote “Bite by Bite” (Clarkson Potter, 2011), a collection of sophisticated mouthfuls for weddings and other soirees.
Or, as Sina Molavi, the chef at Occasions Caterers in Washington, puts it: “People are looking for more of a restaurant-style dinner.” Rather than an industrial slab of salmon poached hours earlier and dressed with dill sauce, clients want seared-to-order halibut with celeriac puree and green apple ragout.
For the cocktail hour, Eric Michael, co-founder and creative director of Occasions in Washington, says his company has provided mixologists with unique cocktails and has set up food stations dispensing local charcuterie, made-to-order sevicheand single-ingredient stunts such as tomatoes prepared six ways. For one couple, “health-conscious but very food-savvy,” Occasions created a sit-down dinner that started with local carrots, pickled and cut into ribbons, served with fava bean and mint puree and pea tendrils, followed by hand-rolled sheep’s-milk ricotta tortellini in leek broth with chive blossoms, and a main course of organic hen cooked sous vide with vegetables bought at the farmers market the day before.
Wedding porn or “Portlandia”-worthy parody?
Michael says clients are now so locavore-ish that Occasions can have farmers plant to order for a wedding, if time allows. Which is what La Prima Catering, also in Washington/Baltimore, is doing for a wedding in September. The seeds for the kale that will become a salad with lavender honey were planted June 20; the main course, chicken seasoned with lemon grass and paired with roasted eggplant, will be made with chicks that will grow up on the farm after they arrive Aug. 8.
“The bride and groom are very interested in sustainable agriculture and the environment and healthy food and organics,” says LaPrima spokeswoman Karen Bate. “It’s how they live, and they wanted their wedding to reflect that.”
The 120 guests at that wedding will not be receiving invitations asking them to check off their choice of protein: It’s one menu fits all. Georgette Farkas, speaking for Daniel Boulud’s Feasts & Fetes in New York, says that giving options is “completely passe.” A bride and groom who requested a vegetarian menu at Cafe Boulud in Palm Beach, Fla., for their wedding this fall trust everyone will enjoy six passed hors d’oeuvres, including Parmesan arancini (rice balls) filled with fonduta and goat cheese in a crisp Parmesan basket. The menu for the seated dinner: beet tartare, stuffed squash blossoms over risotto with eggplant-tomato compote, and coconut panna cotta.
More and more couples do not want a sit-down dinner at all, which has liberated caterers. Diane Gordon of Diane Gordon Catering in New York says: “Couples want people to mingle. Twenty years ago, there would be pasta stations. Now it’s upscale street food.” She borrows ideas from food trucks to offer a menu that includes three types of falafel — beet, carrot and chickpea-chestnut — plus truffled wild mushroom dumplings, duck empanadas, mini crab tacos, lamb moussaka and tiny Philadelphia cheesesteak sandwiches.
“Brides want their weddings to be creative and really personal,” Gordon says.
As for the cake at such a wedding, it might be supplanted by mini churros to dip in hot chocolate, or quartered doughnuts, provided by Three Tarts Bakery, also in New York.
Callahan agrees that creativity is a motivation but suggests there is also an element of DIY.
“Even if they’re not doing it themselves, brides want to be much more involved. One of the big things is to have the food not look like catered food. Not banquet-y, more natural.” He provides a three-course dinner but suggests the centerpieces be supplemented by shared bowls of shaved corn, say, or a cake stand with slices of flatbread to nibble on.
Callahan has become known for miniaturizing food for weddings. He pairs a small cod taco with a margarita served in a tiny Patron bottle that has a hole drilled through the cork to hold a straw. He does little towers of salmon and tuna as individual courses. And he has found that clients want the sweet equivalent of passed hors d’oeuvres rather than cake so they can be up and dancing, and “you don’t lose your party.” Frozen items are popular: basil-margarita pops, Cosmopolitan sorbet in mini sugar cones, little whoopie pies: “things that bring the energy level up,” he says.
Despite the limping economy, wedding planners are acting like fast-food chains that coax diners into extra eating opportunities. Some weddings have three stages: a cocktail hour, a sit-down (or walk-around) dinner and an informal after-party.
Anne Kelly, wedding planner at Atrendy Wedding in Washington, says couples want to be creative with the food because it takes such a large bite of their budgets. One of her client-couples had a doughnut truck serving cider and coffee arrive as a surprise after the reception. Another couple brought in an ice cream truck.
That may be why she says one thing never goes out of style: comfort food, downsized, such as mini-macaroni and cheese bites, sliders, a shot of tomato soup served with grilled cheese, pigs in blankets. (But, Callahan insists, “Cupcakes are over. They’re done.”)
Several caterers said brides often start out with an all-hors d’oeuvres reception in mind, but the mother of the bride still wields the most influence over the menu — if she is writing the check. So salmon it is.
But guy food is also having its wedding day.
“All the [television] network focus has elevated awareness of food, and now the dad is leaving his high-powered office to come meet the caterer to taste and debate the merits of osso buco versus rib-eye,” Callahan says. “They get bragging rights.”
Grooms are speaking up more as well, says Andrea Duty in Austin. “Everyone has an opinion.” Often they win only on the rehearsal dinner, choosing barbecue or hiring taco trucks. “But I make a ton of banana pudding for grooms.”
Schrambling is a New York food writer whose work regularly appears on Epicurious.com.