We’ve said before that choosing a venue should be your first step in wedding planning. This decision should also be considered as you select your wedding menu. While you and your spouse may have mused for months about swapping traditional cake for assorted pies, that might not jibe well with a formal setting.
Avoiding this kind of wedding menu headache is fairly simple: Envision the kind of reception you want (food, decor, music, and all), then choose a venue accordingly. Here’s a sure-fire guide for working with your caterer to build a wedding menu that fits perfectly with the venue.
At Lisa Dupar’s namesake catering company, they start with the "WMI" or "What’s Most Important" assessment.
"We try to pull out from couples, what’s most important in this wedding?" says the Seattle-based chef. "Of course, I’m always thinking like a chef. I’m not the bride and groom; I’m not the couple," Dupar says now. "We [chefs] have to remove ourselves from the discussion."
Once your caterer understands what’s most important to you (maybe it’s not the food!), she can plan her approach accordingly.
Umber Ahmad and her team at Mah-Ze-Dahr Bakery in Manhattan have a pretty good system: "When we think about the location and the venue of the wedding, you want to ask two questions," she says. "What will the guest experience be like in this venue—seated, walking around, passed desserts?"
Your answer to that question is more important that you might think. The last thing you want is mingling people in formal dresses juggling a signature cocktail and an hors d'oeuvre that requires a knife and fork. For moments and spaces where you’ll be mingling—perhaps at a vineyard or during cocktail hour in most venues—settle on something bite-sized for easy eating.
Ahmad also tries to get to the heart of why you chose your venue; it likely represents you and your partner in some way, either through a memory or overall aesthetic.
"The second question we ask is, do you want to incorporate the venue in the theme or ideology of the menu?" she says. "Oftentimes you choose your wedding venue because it has sentimental value. Perhaps you had your first date there. We ask, do you remember what you ate [on your first date]? And we try to incorporate that into the dessert menu."
Dupar recalls catering a beautiful reception at a winery in Washington state. While she loved working with the couple to build their Tuscan-inspired menu, she says it might have been much more challenging if they'd met in France and wanted a five-course French menu with wine pairings, for example. That would have married their story with the space, but it also would have required more planning and equipment.
"We could still do it, we’d just know we need a tent and we need to bring in the ovens," Dupar said. "The winery is gorgeous, but they don’t have a full kitchen; there’s a tiny little home kitchen. So we’d have to let the couple know we can do whatever they want, but in this venue if you want this menu, we’ll need to rent this kitchen equipment."
Where does Dupar draw the line between doable and impossible? Well, that has more to do with the guest list than the venue. "We’ve had people ask for soufflés. For 50 people, that’s not gonna happen," she says with a laugh.
Ahmad and the Mah-Ze-Dahr team are fond of drawing inspiration from what else is in the space. "We’ve also done weddings at botanical gardens and tried to be very seasonal with those as well," she says. "If it’s an outdoor wedding in summertime, we try to put fresh fruits and things that are native to wherever the wedding is, or we’re doing some beautiful floral designs on the cake."
Even though we know Tom James and Dustin Ngo served a home-style Chinese menu that included Peking-duck sliders and jumbo shrimp with XO sauce at their bookstore wedding last June, we asked our catering experts about how they would have approached the wedding menu for a unique venue—New York’s Strand bookstore.
"My first thought is, let’s think of six really great stories that incorporate food in some way. Why not create a story around food?" Ahmad asks. "Have the book be open to that page and have the food that’s described in that moment in that book." Can you say brilliant?!
If you’ve fallen in love with a space but your guest list (or plans for a jumbo dance floor) won’t quite fit, consider a strolling reception, like the one offered in the salon and ballrooms at the Umstead Hotel & Spa just outside of Raleigh, North Carolina.
The Umstead’s social catering manager, Amanda Colfer, says, "A strolling reception is better for receptions that go a bit over the capacity. We recommend that couples only have seating for about 30 percent of the guests. That way, it’s very obvious that it’s a strolling reception."
Although it might seem odd to provide seating for only a fraction of your guests, this setup lends itself to more socializing (and fewer seating-chart headaches).
"Strolling receptions are very similar to buffets in that your guests will get up and be serving themselves," Colfer says, "but it’s a bit different in that we’ll have different stations for your guests to browse. There will be action stations where the chefs will be replenishing the food as guests are taking it. So there’s a little bit of an entertainment factor in watching them cook."
Still set on getting everyone seated at the same time? Add variety to your guests’ dining experience by filling the space with food of all kinds. "I’m a big fan of having dessert happen in different ways," says Ahmad, "giving people the option to sit, having something at every table, things that are passed, things that can be taken away with them," like edible favors or the personal wedding cakes one of Dupar’s clients had at each place setting.
At the end of the day, your wedding menu is all up to you. As Colfer says, "There’s a reputation of the term ’wedding food’ being derogatory, but I think food is one of the most important things when it comes to the wedding." There’s also research backing that up. Whatever you do, be sure to consider your venue as you plan the menu. Your guests will be patting you on the back by the end of the night—and hopefully you’ll be happy with the results too.