I always end up at the back of the prime rib line. After heading for the pasta station and realizing that the line pace there is glacial, I ease over to the carving station just as Table 8 is called, and suddenly 12 enormous people have clustered in front of me, plates in hand, each awaiting an outsized chop they will then drench in all available sauces.
It doesn’t have to be that way. The wedding dinner is probably the most variable element of that special day, and it defines the look of the occasion. A feast for 400 in a banquet hall is very different from dinner for 40 in a restaurant—or an even smaller dinner catered at your home.
The key to success is your involvement. Your leadership, in fact, because the more you entrust to others, the more it will look like everybody else’s cut-and-paste affair.
This is not to disparage the work of the planner or caterer or other wedding professional, who should ensure that the event runs smoothly, but it’s up to you to add the individual touches that make this your wedding and nobody else’s.
Speaking as one who has had to prep, cook and serve 200 orders of chicken Florentine for a wedding reception, I’m amazed that the food ever emerges in decent shape. Time is the killer. Moving all that food through a limited amount of stovetop and oven space, having too few cooks on hand to plate it quickly and then trying to hustle it out there, table by table and tray by tray, results in bad bottlenecks and cold meals.
If you’re planning a reception for several hundred, then, your best bet is a catering hall with the facilities and experience to accommodate such a thing—preferably one you’ve previously seen in action, and not just for a small dinner service. Sending out a banquet is completely different from serving a party of four.
You’ll be choosing food from different pricing schemes, but don’t cruise the upper limit of your budget. Leave room for surprises. You may want to bring in a cake from elsewhere; you should pay for a round or two of wine. And don’t serve plonk for the champagne toast.
If you want to offer a vegetarian entrée, make sure the kitchen is prepared for it. Most are good at it these days, but I’ve seen abysmal meat-free fare emerge from supposedly reputable places.
There are more homespun alternatives. A friend describes a potluck supper for about 350 people—she’s not sure because no RSVP was required—that was low-key and relaxed, held in the reception hall at her church. “That allowed us to invite everybody we wanted to,” she says.
A good friend of mine is a musician who plays more weddings than he cares to admit, and to him the dirtiest word of all is “bride.” He describes a nightmare composite that’s demanding, high-strung, weepy—nuts, in short. He also knows that this is a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation brought on by the confluence of Mom and the calendar. Even though the professionals know how to deal with this too-predictable phenomenon, the more control you can exercise over your wedding, the more chance you have of actually relaxing as it takes place. Even if you piss off your Mom.
The best piece of advice I was given was to never lose sight of the fact that the wedding is about the bride and groom, and no matter who is footing the bill it’s they who get to call the shots. In fact, the advice served me well through two weddings.
For the first one, with a guest list of about 60, we opted for a restaurant not far from where we lived. Restaurants love weddings because they offer good profits, but again you need to take the initiative in planning the event. Ask lots of questions; find out if your philosophies are in sync.
This is probably not the occasion for a rarefied menu. Truffled duck confit may be wonderful, but it’s costly and takes forever to make. Your chicken and beef favorites are inclined to emerge from the kitchen in the most reliable form.
Buffet service gives you more leeway in accommodating your guests, but it also puts the biggest bottleneck right on the floor (and probably at the prime rib station). Make sure the traffic can be handled well. If you haven’t attended many such events as a guest, get recommendations from friends you trust, always keeping in mind that too many of your friends secretly think that Olive Garden serves good food.
Off-premises options abound, from Saratoga’s elegant Canfield Casino to a picnic area at Thatcher Park. Most caterers have an on-the-road option that should include tables and dinner service.
The smaller your party, the more leeway you enjoy. Keep it under, say, 20, and you can order off the menu. Or do it at home, which is where so many subsequent weddings take place. And don’t overlook the idea of having your home-based wedding professionally catered.
I wish there were statistics that related the success of a marriage to the success of the wedding meal. My gut tells me they’re in direct proportion, so make the event culinarily memorable and you may never need a subsequent wedding.