Today, Abigail Kirsch Culinary Productions, a prestigious catering company, is getting ready for the wedding of a lively, upbeat, informal couple who has asked for help creating a wedding with an intimate feeling. They have chosen an exquisite, unique venue—the Pratt Mansions across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It's a staid girls' school during the week, but on weekends is reborn for parties and weddings, via a handful of subtle makeover tricks.
When comparing costs at on-premise and off-premise venues, ask about add-ons, such as chair-and-table rentals or even air-conditioning, as they can alter your budget estimates enormously.
It All Begins With the Tasting
In the dining room at Tappan Hill, Janet MacEachen, the president of the off-premise division, is conducting a tasting—the yummiest part of being an engaged couple. At an impeccably set table, a waiter serves various choices for each course, as well as complementary wine possibilities. Janet is busy pointing out the design of each plate, because food must be eaten with the eyes first. She steers the clients toward items that work best together, gently shows them how to properly hold a wine glass by the stem (so as not to change the wine's temperature), listens to their comments, and takes copious notes.
The couple whose wedding I am following today was here several months ago for a similar tasting. After sampling a myriad of dishes, the couple decided that a buffet menu, simple flowers, partial seating, and lots of dancing was exactly what they both had in mind.
Putting the Pieces Together
I arrive at the Pratt Mansion as the trucks are being unloaded and two kitchens are being set up. Hors d'oeuvres will be served from a downstairs kitchen, and the dinner food will come from a kitchen set up in a classroom that's adjacent to the ballroom, three flights up. The cooks check in their supplies, including props, baskets, and custom trays, and the headwaiters check in all the rentals: linens, tableware, chafing dishes, serving utensils, tables, chairs, glasses, and so on. There are bits and pieces of the wedding everywhere, yet in no time at all it will magically come together.
Chinese dumplings, for the in-vogue Asian buffet stations, are steamed (with water that has been brought to a boil in coffee urns) in small batches over lettuce leaves on-site, so they are not gummy, and blowtorches are used to brown foods where there are no ovens.
Alison Awerbuch, executive chef and partner with the Kirsch family, spends a great deal of her time creating and testing recipes for the two-tier cooking process that off-premise catering requires. Ali and I have been friends for quite some time (we're both Culinary Institute of America graduates), and she can definitely put her whisk where her mouth is. After months of trial and error, for example, Alison has finally developed a risotto for large-party consumption that she deems creamy enough to serve to patrons.
The Cocktail Hour
Two hours into the preparations, the guests begin to arrive. Waiters pass beautifully garnished trays of hors d'oeuvres. The bar is open, the bride and groom make their entrance, and the cocktail reception is in full swing.
If you have opted to have buffet stations for your reception meal, consider serving only passed hors d'oeuvres at the cocktail hour. Serving stationary hors d'oeuvres will take away from the excitement of the main meal.
Two flights up in the ballroom, the maitre d', Mike Elbee, has given assignments to the service staff. Some are rolling silverware in napkins and draping linens on the banquet tables, others are following the chef's sketches for setting up each food station. Checklists and floor plans abound. The bar is being stocked, wine and beer are being put in ice tubs, and the captain is giving instructions to the bartender on serving a Mind Eraser, a special request of the groom. The chef and three cooks are busy cooking in chafing dishes, gauging the meat temperature, and arranging platters of sushi for the guests.
On to the Main Course
At 15 minutes to go, waiters line up at the kitchen door to bring the finished dishes out; those waiters assigned to serve at the stations make sure they have memorized the ingredients of each item. Each station is checked against the menu list, and a final aesthetic review of the room is made. Each station's presentation must do justice to the food.
And they certainly do. There are three sumptuous buffets: the Heartland Carving station has a huge turkey, sides of salmon, corn pudding, and relishes. The New York Steak House station displays aged sirloin, Caesar salad, and creamed spinach. The Taste of the Orient station presents made-to-order scallion pancakes filled with shredded duck, plus stir-fry, sushi, and dumplings. Cake will be served later, as well as chocolate-dipped strawberries and an assortment of truffles and cookies.
When interviewing caterers for a station-buffet wedding, ask what props (small fountains, urns) will dress up the stations. For this sort of party, the food is a major part of the decor. As the guests enter the dining room, the arrangement works perfectly. Some dance, others go straight for the food; some amble to the bar, finishing conversations. It's a vibrant, lively, fun party.
It's a Wrap!
At the end of the wedding, the site must be reconverted to its alter ego, a school. That means a late night for the staff with 2 a.m. rental pickups and arduous truck reloadings.
By then, the bride and groom will have begun their honeymoon, blissfully unaware of what the breakdown entails, and full of the laughter, fun, and good food that made their day so special.