Ari Starkman of Sterling Caterers

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Courtesy of Sterling Affair

The majority of your wedding budget will be spent on catering. Whether you serve a brunch or dinner menu, a buffet or formal sit-down meal, you want to make sure that you hire a caterer that will work with your budget to create a delicious meal for your guests. Sterling Affair, a full-service catering and event management company based in the tri-state area has been creating unique menus and settings for social and corporate events for over 18 years. We spoke with their General Manager, Ari Starkman—who has worked with some of today's today's most renowned chefs including, Jody Adams, Steven Starr, and Rocco D'Spirito—about what brides and grooms should look for when hiring a caterer, trends in catering and how you can really save money on your catering budget. Here's what he had to say: —Anne Chertoff

What are some trends in wedding menus?

Recently, a lot of brides are requesting miniature versions of comfort food with an upscale twist. The requests have been so frequent that we have incorporated items like these into our current menu; we now offer "truffled mac n' cheese bites" and "duck meatballs with plum jam" as standard hors d'oeuvres and they get selected for almost every event that we cater. There has also been a trend towards small tasting plates. We modify certain appetizers and entrees, such as Miniature Filet Mignon Welling with foie gras and mushroom duxelle scaling them down to two or three bites. Tasting plates are great for a cocktail hour station since they are prepared fresh by a chef at the buffet. Most of our clients love the interactive experience of watching a chef prepare more sophisticated dishes on the buffet. One of my favorites is our ceviche bar, where our chefs make fresh tortillas to eat with several varieties of ceviche such as Salmon with a Guava, Carrot, and Mint sauce.

For the reception, Duo/Trio plates are now the most popular items. This allows guests to experience different flavors and textures on the same plate. A popular appetizer that we serve is a trio of seafood with seasonal relishes: lobster, shrimp, and scallops are served on the same plate, each topped with a unique relish, giving the guests a new experience with each bite. For entrees, one of our most popular is a "Duo of Beef"; it is a petite filet mignon and braised Kobe short rib with a sweet potato hash, broccolini, & a red wine reduction

Can finding out your guests' menu selection on your RSVP card truly save you money?

The fact is that it can save you some money; however...

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There's more!

, I feel as though it is very difficult for anyone to decide what they want for dinner 3 or 4 weeks in advance. I know that I do not like doing selecting in advance. At the reception, each guest is asked what they ordered as an entree even if you do ask for selections on your RSVP card; I am sure we've all been seated next to someone who really pre-selected the chicken but saw the beef and asks for that instead. When it comes time for a guest to let the waiter know what he or she ordered, you will certainly have guests who have changed their minds and want the alternative. Given the trend towards making the wedding meal more like a restaurant experience, with more variety and flavors than ever before, it seems to go against the concept to ask your guests to choose in advance and may not save you very much in the end.

A tasteful alternative to curb your costs would be to have one entree selection for all of your guests. If you choose this route, always be sure that your caterer has some fish and vegetarian alternatives on hand for the guests that do not eat the main course you have selected.

How should a couple go about creating their wedding menu? Is there a method or process they should follow?

Your wedding day should give you the chance to be a little selfish. Planning the menu should come from your heart and each element should reflect a piece of each of you, the bride and the groom. Our clients sometimes ask us to make an item or two based on recipes that have been in their family for years and is not something a family function can or should be without. We have even had some grandmothers and mothers come to our kitchen and work with our chef to be sure that a recipe is followed exactly.

To plan the menu, meet with your caterer one to two months prior to the wedding. Ask to see their seasonal offerings before you meet with them so that you can be prepared with ideas when you walk in. Definitely review a proposed menu before hand and mark what sounds appealing. At the meeting, you can ask for feedback from the caterer regarding the selections you have made. An experienced caterer will ensure that you have a balance of meat, seafood, and vegetarian selections to accommodate all of your guests. Do not worry about pleasing each guest; you will never be able to please everyone! Remember that the day is all about you.

What are some things a bride and groom should be aware of when hiring a caterer?

With any vendor, communication is key. When you call or email any vendor, the response time should be within 24 hours. For most people, this is the most important day of their lives and you should be treated accordingly.

The caterer is the most important vendor that you will have to deal with unless you decide to hire a wedding planner. A quality caterer will act almost like a wedding planner; for instance, I frequently draft day-of timelines for my clients. On the day of the wedding, the caterer will help create a flow to the day ensuring that the band, the photographer, and all of your on-site vendors are in the know about each element of the day. A great caterer takes the time to get to know their clients and understand their needs and wants. I always ask clients what their favorite cocktail or food item at the reception is so I can be sure that we have it ready to serve to them at a moment's notice.

Avoid caterers that don't hire and train their own staff, that don't caterer weddings frequently, or are not flexible to your needs or budget. Other concerns brides and grooms should be aware of is to be sure that a caterer obtains the proper permits and insurance for the event. Avoid caters that don't act professional from the start or don't offer their honest opinions or ideas. You are hiring a professional and you must have confidence in them. There are so many details that need attending to in catering your wedding to make it special, so make sure that you put yourself in good hands.


How can a couple save money on their catering budget without skimping on taste and style?


Be honest with all of your vendors and yourself about your budget from the start. A quality vendor can tell you if it is possible to hire their services at a fee you can afford. Knowing my client's' budget can help me design a menu and beverage plan that can make the most of their money.


With the recent troubled economy, "over the top" cocktail-style receptions are becoming more popular. We serve passed hors d'oeuvres at the beginning, then begin opening cocktail-style stations as the event progresses which gives the guests something to constantly look forward to throughout the reception. This style of event allows the caterer to operate with less staff and less expensive food since the portion of each dish will be smaller, but the overall servings and variety for the guests will be greater. This style of event can even reduce your rental costs since you will not need seating for everyone. A mix of high and low cocktail tables with some seating works wonderfully and even allows for an improved social atmosphere over the traditional seated dinner.

Read our Essential Guide to Food & Drinks for everything you need to know about catering your wedding!

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