Signature Weddings

Signature Weddings

Signature Weddings: whether traditional or not, weddings today express a distinctly personal style, right down to the menu

It’s an image of romance vivid enough to make someone already married want to tie the knot again: rehearsal dinners in stately wine-country mansions; ceremonies atop Colorado mountains; and barefoot receptions on the beach, signature weddings of course.

Not long ago, the choice of such offbeat sites was reserved for the nonreligious or those entering second or third marriages. Today, couples young and old, traditional and eccentric are exploring their options. The trend, say wedding guides, is rooted in couples’ desire to personalize the event, to present to families and friends what they love as much as the one they love.

Even when couples choose the more traditional hotel ballroom or restaurant, the event is marked with personality. Music and dances that reflect an ethnic background are common. For many couples, creative alternatives to full-blown receptions, such as afternoon teas or early-evening cocktail receptions, combine value awareness with the desire for elegance.

Naturally, the infusion of personal style extends to wedding menus. For operators catering such events, the trend suggests opportunity for creating interesting dishes and presenting them in settings that heighten their appeal.

Most couples aren’t straying too far from basic, familiar foods–in order to satisfy their guests–but they have more sophisticated tastes and generally are more knowledgeable past generations. Ethnic-inspired dishes are increasingly popular. Dessert, too, goes way beyond traditional white cake.

Signature Weddings: A perfect pair

In California’s Napa Valley, caterer Peter McCaffrey’s wedding menus pair fresh, simple foods with the region’s fine wines. Locally grown baby vegetables, goat cheese and even Sonoma duck are popular items, he says.

Reflecting the popularity of Napa Valley as a wedding destination, McCaffrey says his Wine Valley Catering business will do about 150 nuptial events this year–a 20% increase from last year. One of those is the rehearsal dinner for New Yorkers Alison Daly and Bill Van Dyke, for whom Napa Valley seemed a natural choice to hold their wedding.

“We have so many [guests] coming from all over,” including both coasts and the Midwest, Daly says. “We wanted them to come to the wedding and be able to see a different part of the country.”

“We wanted a fun place where people would want to [travel] to,” Van Dyke adds.

In planning the menus for their June wedding, Daly and Van Dyke were most concerned with choosing foods that all of their 320 guests would enjoy. They also wanted a variety of dishes that would complement the settings in which the meals will be presented.

For their rehearsal dinner, to be held at a winery in Calistoga, Calif., Daly and Van Dyke chose a simple salad of local greens and an entree of pasta and seafood.

Their wedding will be held at Meadowood resort near St. Helena, which hosts 75 to 100 weddings a year, and earns about 40% of its total catering revenue from the events, according to Christina Millet, senior manager of catering and conference services.

Meadowood’s chefs, too, favor local seasonal foods. Millet describes the fare as California cuisine with French overtones.

Daly and Van Dyke skipped the $3.25-per-piece hors d’oeuvres (examples include vegetarian California rolls, Pacific coast crab cakes with tomato remoulade, and petite gourmet pizzas) and instead chose a cheese and fresh fruit table to start.

Their sit-down meal will include an appetizer of grilled prawns with angel hair pasta followed by salad of Napa Valley mesclun greens with sliced spring vegetables. Braised cabbage and garlic potatoes accompany the rosemary chicken entree ($47 per guest for the three courses, $53 if a fourth course is added), along with fresh-baked rolls, rustic breads and coffee.

Meadowood offers wedding parties a choice of four desserts, including vanilla bean creme brulee and spring berries with sabayon, as well as three wedding cakes. (The cake is priced separately, at $5 per guest.) Seeing no reason for both dessert and cake, Daly and Van Dyke chose only cake: a flourless, white chocolate almond with fresh berries.

Signature Weddings: True bliss

Down the California coast near Half Moon Bay, caterer Forrest Farrar is feeding a demand for less formal wedding receptions. Clients of his New Classic Catering are selecting locations that allow guests to “escape from the city environment and relax–even if they’re in a tux,” he says.

Farrar has catered wedding events on the beach, in the Redwood forest and on bluffs overlooking the ocean. To accompany such natural surroundings, Farrar’s menus emphasize fresh foods such as raw vegetable trays, grilled salmon and chicken brochettes. Lately, sushi has become popular, he says.

Clambakes, common in Hawaii, are another less formal option for California beach receptions, Farrar says. The meal typically includes a buffet of grilled chicken, mini corncobs, pasta salads, bread and, of course, clams–sometimes 50 pounds steamed in a giant pot. Farrar charges between $20 and $25 per guest, including coffee.

For similarly less formal weddings held on mountain ridges and sprawling ranches in Colorado, the food becomes less important, says Boulder-based wedding consultant Staci Keys. “Couples are putting their money elsewhere,” she remarks, and typically don’t want to spend more than $20 to $25 per guest.

This is not to say that couples’ standards for quality food is any less. Indeed, two caterers, Frank Carusetta and Diane Starnick, both known for their innovative menus and quality cuisine, are in high demand in Boulder, according to Keys.

Carusetta, chef-owner of Luminosity, catered 11 weddings last year, only one of which was held in a traditional banquet hall. More common are settings like Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder, which, according to the city’s Chamber of Commerce, has weddings every weekend from spring to fall.

For one reception, Carusetta loaded a 5-foot propane barbecue with skewers of swordfish marinated in tequila and cilantro, chicken and beef satay, vegetable brochettes and tofu. The meal also included salads, fruits and breads.

Reflecting the active, health-conscious lifestyles of Boulder residents, Carusetta says dessert is typically something light, such as fresh fruit with chocolate fondue instead of wedding cake.

Starnick created her “Southwestern flair” wedding menu for a ranch wedding to be held in May. She says the selections were chosen by the bride, a Boulder resident, but highly influenced by her mother in New York, who shuns dietary fat.

Passed hors d’oeuvres will include low-fat curried carrot pot stickers, veggie quesadillas with guacamole, and crostini. A table loaded with fresh fruit, cheeses and crackers is also planned.

The dinner buffet ($28 per guest) includes grilled honey chicken with roasted tomato relish; poached salmon with “Diane’s Southwestern green mayonnaise”; chilled grilled vegetables; Caesar salad; steamed veggie tamales filled with corn and green chiles; and Southwest pasta salad tossed in lime-chile vinaigrette.

Starnick’s specialty is sweets, and for this reception, the dessert menu includes both German chocolate and carrot cakes, miniature chocolate eclair puffs, lemon cheesecake, Mexican wedding cookies, hazelnut bars half dipped in chocolate, and kipfel butter cookies with various fillings. For the bride’s mother, the table will be overflowing with fresh strawberries, Starnick says.

Signature Weddings: A long proposal

Tradition and formality characterize the style expressed by many young couples in the mountains of West Virginia. For them, the grand Hallehurst and Graceland mansions on the campus of Davis and Elkins College in Elkins, W.Va., are ideal wedding settings.

Mostly by word of mouth, these century-old mansions attracted twice as many weddings last year–about 50–as they did the previous year, says Dawn Aubrey, on-site manager for Waltham, Mass.-based Sodexho, which manages foodservice for the college’s student body and the mansions.

Weddings at the mansions are typically weekend-long events, beginning Friday evening with a rehearsal dinner and ending with Sunday brunch. In addition to the Saturday reception meal, guests frequency request a light pre-ceremony breakfast or post-reception snack. Often, the caterer will assemble fresh fruit baskets for guests’ rooms.

To match the formality of weddings in this region, menus are decidedly French, rich with cream sauces and hearty dishes. For example, a special holiday buffet menu, offered from November to January, features whole roasted turkey with chestnut, apple-cranberry or sausage stuffing; glazed duck with wild mushrooms; pork medallions with grilled spiced apples; and petite beef Wellington.

Other entrees, such as roast breast of chicken chasseur and seafood coquille vol-au-vent, are offered throughout the year. Typical side dishes include duchess, scalloped or au gratin potatoes; green beans amandine; glazed baby carrots; or vegetable melange.

For dessert, couples can choose chocolate cream, lemon meringue or pumpkin pie; eclairs, cream puffs or fancy cookies; or cheesecake, creme caramel or creme brulee.

Because couples are often unfamiliar with the foods, Aubrey says advance tastings are important. “They are very concerned that guests like the food,” she says.

Due to lower labor costs in this part of the country and couples’ unwillingness to pay high prices, the events here are less expensive. Meal prices range from $12 to $17 per guest, Aubrey says, and even over an entire weekend–which might include five meals–couples still pay only about $35 per guest.

Signature Weddings: Love lasts

The Plaza, one of New York’s grand hotels, is the setting for an upcoming Russian Jewish wedding that will feature a menu laced with ethnic specialties, including “lots of caviar and lots of vodka,” says Lawrence Harvey, executive director of catering for The Plaza.

The event, for 400 guests, will incorporate many of the trends currently in vogue at the hotel: massive selections of bite-size hors d’oeuvres, both passed and served from multiple stations; late-night dessert and coffee buffets to sustain parties that last until 4 a.m.; and gift baskets filled with bagels and jellies for the morning after.

The reception menu–which lists more than 25 hors d’oeuvres, a sushi bar, and separate stations for caviar and antipasto–is 80% fish, Harvey says.

The sit-down dinner begins with an appetizer of fillet of sea bass with tomato crust and salad of mixed greens with raspberry vinaigrette. Silver trays of smoked fish and marinated artichokes will be on the tables, with vodka served throughout the meal.

The entree is a beef filet and lobster duet, served with roasted new potatoes, carrots and asparagus, accompanied by country rolls and seven-grain bread. Dessert trays, served at each table, will offer a taste of tiramisu, hazelnut cheesecake and chocolate-dipped strawberries.

For such lavish events, Harvey says the cost per guest can reach about $350 if breakfast in the hotel’s Palm Court dining room is included.

Similar formal events, though not as expensive, are offered at Seattle’s Four Seasons Olympic Hotel, where wedding specialist Corinda LeClair says wedding meals typically cost $47 to $55 per guest.

Here, LeClair says, personal style means elegant displays; intimate, sitdown service; and menus highlighted with fresh herbs and savory sauces. Particularly popular are vodka and caviar stations, where vodka bottles are frozen in ice molds and caviar is spooned from tins onto toast points and garnished with the traditional chopped eggs and onions.

Offering another hotel wedding experience, Mike Nagel, catering director at Boston’s Bay Tower, says couples are more health-conscious and attuned to exotic foods. They’re choosing menus that offer a wide variety of fresh, often grilled, vegetables and entrees such as pheasant and lamb. Vegetarian options, too, are popular. “We have to be very flexible” to accommodate a variety of tastes, Nagel says.

Overall, couples today know what they want for their wedding events. As Nagel observes, they’re doing the planning themselves and, in some cases, also paying the bills. With such freedom, “weddings today are truly expressions of personalized tastes,” says Nagel.

“Will cake be the dessert?”

This is a question baker Judy Contino asks brides when they call on her to create a wedding cake. Often, the answer is no.

Which is too bad if guests then pass on the wedding cake, Contino says. The owner of Bittersweet cafe and bakery in Chicago says her creations, including the almond cake with brulee custard that graces this issue’s cover, are meant to be eaten.

Contino also considers whether the wedding meal is sitdown or buffet style. For sit-down meals, a single-flavor cake is best, she says, so every guest receives the same. For buffets, Contino might create a three-tiered cake, each layer a different flavor.

The multilayered cake also works for the bride and groom who can’t agree on a flavor. Frank Carusetta, a caterer in Boulder, Colo., once created a tiered cake with a bottom layer of chocolate cake, a second layer of carrot cake (the bride’s favorite) and a top layer of flan custard, all topped with fresh fruit.

At the Four Seasons Olympic Hotel in Seattle, the cake is sometimes preceded by “wedding sorbet” in flavors of champagne, lavender and passion fruit, according to wedding specialist Corinda LeClair.

At the Regal Bostonian in Boston, traditional white wedding cakes are losing favor to chocolate cakes, says catering director Erin Keith, who recently presented a tiered cake of devil’s food laced with raspberry and frosted with white buttercream.

Dessert stations are also popular. Mike Nagel, catering director at Bay Tower in Boston, says a smaller portion of cake complemented by pastries, ice cream or chocolate-dipped fruit is ideal.

With emotions running high and only perfection allowed, catering weddings can be challenging enough. Making it more so is the wish of many of today’s marrying couples to take their parties to the beach, a vineyard or a mountaintop– where amenities like electrical outlets and running water might not be available.

These situations require hours of planning, acute organization and a lot of foresight.

Planning and setting up “is more than half the process,” says Peter McCaffrey of Wine Valley Catering.

The process begins with a close look at the reception site to determine the availability of electricity, running water (and whether it can be used for drinking or washing dishes), grills and even restrooms. Only then can the menu be created, says Diane Starnick, a Boulder, Colo.-based caterer.

Starnick’s menus emphasize foods that hold well and taste good at room temperature. All prepared vegetables, marinated meats and salads are chilled and transported in industrial coolers. For foods that must be cooked, she brings her own stoves or charcoal for on-site grilling.

McCaffrey, too, prepares everything in his own kitchen. On-site, he uses a 5-foot grill and propane ovens. Cooking on-site, he says, is essential for fresh foods. His aim is to “cook, plate and serve just like a restaurant.”

Often, cleanup begins before setup. Boulder caterer Frank Carusetta recalls spending an hour raking pine cones before he could unload his van. “You have to have the foresight to see whatever you might encounter.”

Signature Weddings


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