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A Dinner to Remember
By B.A. Nilsson

With a little planning and foresight, the blissfully betrothed can ensure a reception meal to suit the ceremony—and, more important, the couple

I always end up at the back of the prime-rib line. After eyeballing the pasta station and deciding 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 drenching an outsized chop 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 capacious catering hall is very different from dinner for 40 in a restaurant—or catered at 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 every other 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, plating it with a limited number of cooks and serving it with a limited number of servers creates bad bottlenecks.

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 dinner service: Sending out a banquet is completely different from dinner for four. If you need to offer a vegetarian entrée, make sure the kitchen can handle that. I’ve seen abysmal meat-free fare from supposedly reputable places.

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.

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 way, we were able to invite everybody we wanted to,” she says.

It’s easy to get caught in the maelstrom and go mad. 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 our apartment. Restaurants love weddings because they offer good profits, but again you need to take the initiative in planning the event. And, again, your experience as a dinner guest won’t necessarily be the same as a banquet guest, but you should acquaint yourself both with the chef and the staff who will be serving you. 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 make. Your chicken and beef favorites are likely 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—you don’t want people cooling their heels on line or at their tables. If you haven’t attended many such events as a guest, get recommendations from friends you trust, always keeping in mind that most of your friends secretly think that the Olive Garden serves good food.

Off-premises options abound, from Saratoga’s elegant Canfield Casino to a picnic area at Thacher 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’re in the realm of ordering off the menu. Or doing it at home. 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 be sure to invite me.

 

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