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.
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.
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.
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!