May 30, 2018
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Setting the Rules of Wedding Catering on Fire

Wedding traditions are constantly changing and adapting. So why are we still following the same old formulas for wedding catering?

At my first catering job, I felt lonely. I was an anonymous set of hands for someone else’s company. Wedding guests did not know that Jenn de la Vega made their chevre salad or artichoke crostini. Unlike smaller restaurants I had worked for, where I could talk to customers and get to know them while I was cooking, I had almost no interaction with the wedding guests and partygoers I was cooking for.

I chuckled thinking about Martin Short playing Franck the wedding coordinator in Father of the Bride, who insisted that the cake you choose determines what kind of wedding you will have. In my mind, like every movie I had seen on the subject, weddings had to follow tried-and-true traditions. Some combination of a bar, appetizers, the meal, speeches, first dance, bouquet toss, cake cutting, and coffee service while a DJ cues the hits. As the person actually making these appetizers and meals, the whole formula felt a little bit tired—and a little bit impersonal. It always seemed like there should be a better way, beyond choosing menu items from a binder.

Photo by d. yee

Thanks to entering cook-offs and smoking epic meats in my own backyard, I have had a long love affair with grilling, from the wafting smoke and glowing coals to the warm sociability of it. So I began to think about how it could take the place of humdrum wedding catering, starting with a backyard cookout for my friends Richard and Anne. I had a blast talking to guests about their burgers and how they liked them cooked.

A few years later, my friend Sam came over to my house and sheepishly said that she and her longtime boyfriend, Zephyr, had secretly gotten married at City Hall. I remember her nervousness. They hadn’t even told their parents yet. This break in tradition resonated with my meandering food career.

They decided to have an “already married” party—much more relaxing to coordinate than a full-on wedding. Fewer moving parts, less ceremony, more dancing. Because we were on a budget, I was only bringing the main courses. Part of the invitation was a request for salads and appetizers. This collaborative idea made it feel more like a family potluck than a buttoned-up catering hall.

Adam and Mitchell’s doughnut tower (photo by Jerm Cohen)

Navigating Sam’s diet nurtured my thirst for a challenge. It was like being on Chopped. With parameters like no cow-derived dairy or gluten, we came up with adobo pulled pork with tamari, refreshing black eyed pea salad with white wine vinegar, zucchini noodles with tahini dressing, pickled smoked fennel with orange, and shredded chicken with a custom BBQ sauce. We tested the BBQ sauce recipe for two weeks, riffing off of their favorite flavors and smells, like cherry, rye whiskey, smoke, and maple. It was Sam and Zephyr’s sauce. Whenever I bring it up, Sam gasps, “The magic sauce!”

Instead of a gift table, guests stopped by my tent to hand off appetizers and salads to keep out of the sun. No one was assigned speeches. Sam asked everyone, “Does anyone have any kind words to say?” Silence. I did something that would be unheard of at a formal wedding. I, the caterer, spoke. I explained our process behind the sauce that everyone ate that day and the connection Sam and Zephyr have to food, and now to me. It felt right.

Jenn de la Vega, TASTE’s Cook In Residence

For the wedding of Mitchell and Adam (a gloriously untraditional wedding at the Strand bookstore that was covered by The New York Times), the focus was on the heritages of the grooms. During our consultations, we came up with a way to mash up their Hawaiian-Japanese and Jewish food cultures. The result was a large grazing table full of kosher pickles, pickled pineapple, crudite, bagel chips, white fish dip, and miso hummus. We served up dashi brisket sliders, various onigiri rice balls dipped in green tea furikake and stuffed with edamame and avocado. Instead of a cake, we opted for a tower of their favorite doughnuts from Pies n’ Thighs and a shaved-ice bar with rainbow mochi.

Weddings are changing. Don’t be afraid of going for something different and profoundly personal with your menu. You won’t find your dream wedding cake in a catalog. In fact, you don’t even have to have a cake if you don’t want it. Cheers to that!

Ingredients

  • BBQ Sauce
  • ½ cup dried cherries
  • ½ cup rye
  • 6 large tomatoes, quartered
  • 3 medium Vidalia onions, peeled and quartered
  • 8 teaspoons white vinegar
  • ½ pound pecanwood or maple wood chips
  • 12 tablespoons maple syrup
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons cumin
  • Chicken
  • 3-4 pounds whole chicken
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ¼ cup kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon peppercorn, crushed
  • 1 pint smoky cherry BBQ sauce

Fair warning: This recipe requires patience. There are many ways to shortcut it, but I’ve built in a trick to enjoy it thoroughly (read: shots). I used Consider Bardwell maple syrup from our local McCarren Park farmers’ market, but any brand will do. Depending on whether you will be eating right away or letting this dish mellow on low heat, you can pull the meat into large chunks for more of a bite or fine for a juicier chomp. Enjoy on squishy potato rolls or split-top buns.

My barbecue brethren wince when I mention liquid smoke. But if you lack outdoor space, start with a half teaspoon at a time and see how you feel about it. I also don’t start a smoker for just one dish, so have a few projects in mind if you go that route. Smoked mushrooms and whole heads of cauliflower are great if you need a hearty chicken substitute.

    BBQ Sauce

  1. The night before, soak the wood chips in a bucket full of water.
  2. In a plastic container, add the rye to the dried cherries. Cover and refrigerate for 8 to 12 hours to reconstitute.
  3. Drain the now-infused rye from the cherries and take the shot (or save for a cherry sazerac later!). Set aside.
  4. Start a chimney of coals for your grill or preheat your smoker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Place the hot coals on one side of the grill to create a hot zone, leaving an indirect cool zone for your vegetables.
  5. Put the tomatoes and onions on a lipped sheet pan that fits into your grill or smoker.
  6. Drain the wood chips and place a handful over the hot coals. Smoke the vegetables for 40-45 minutes. Add another handful of wood chips to the coals if you notice the smoke dying down after 20 minutes.
  7. Once the tomato and onion have a smoky blush, add them to a stock pot with the vinegar, cherries, maple syrup, cinnamon, and cumin. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom of the pot. Smash the tomatoes to make them release their juice. Reduce the sauce for at least an hour.
  8. Let the sauce completely cool off the heat before blending smooth with an immersion blender or food processor.
  9. The pale red sauce can be ready to eat immediately. But if you have a slow cooker and can continue to cook it overnight on low, it will mature into a dark red, rib-sticking sauce.
  10. Store in a clean, sealed container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Chicken

  1. Place the chicken in a stockpot or large Dutch oven. Completely cover it with water. Add the salt and bay leaf.
  2. Bring the pot to a boil on high heat. Cover the chicken and bring it down to medium heat to simmer.
  3. Cook for 25 to 30 minutes until the chicken is fork-tender. Remove the chicken to a lipped cutting board or sheet pan to cool. Strain the broth and reserve half a cup. Save the rest for another dish, like soup or rice.
  4. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, pull the meat off the bones into bite-sized chunks. Toss the shredded chicken with the broth and BBQ sauce in an oven-proof dish. Cover with foil and hold in a 200°F oven until ready to serve.

Jenn de la Vega

Jenn de la Vega is TASTE's Cook In Residence and the writer behind the blog Randwiches.

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