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Now We're Cooking

The city's hottest chefs share their catering tips on everything from using seasonal ingredients to adding personal touches.

It used to be that wedding food was an afterthought—chicken or beef served with red or white, followed by dry cake. Not so today. New Yorkers have come to expect a bit more. Indeed, sushi bars, fine vintages, and exotic main courses have become the norm. How to meet such high expectations? Coaxing a celebrity chef out of his kitchen is one way to achieve perfection. And in fact, some of the best, (Daniel Boulud, Dan Barber) now have catering outfits. Of course, it’s a rare couple that can afford their services. With that in mind, we’ve asked some of the city’s top toques for their ideas, money-saving tips, and all-around do’s-and-don’ts to ensure that your wedding menu, from cocktail hour to dessert, gets a good review.

Cocktail Hour
God is in the Rentals: Attention to even the smallest presentation details is what gives a wedding meal that foodie flair. “Napkins, plates, stemware,” says L’Impero’s Scott Conant. “I hate to say it, but it’s all important. The wine tastes better in the glass it’s supposed to be served in,” he adds, recalling a wedding where champagne was circulated in those stackable plastic champagne cups. “Really, it just makes me shudder.”

One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer: Serving a single specialty cocktail that fits in with your theme or color scheme (apple martinis if your flowers are green, for example) not only cuts costs but also adds an element of elaborate personalization. Douglas Rodriguez of Ola and Calle Ocho favors a mojito with passion fruit and kaffir lime leaves or, for a warm-weather event, a raspberry ice-pop made in a champagne flute. “Just before serving, pour the champagne over the frozen fruit to loosen it,” he says. “They’ll be drinking and licking Popsicles at the same time.”

Keep it Clean: Making things fun yet easy to eat is key. Rodriguez suggests bites of paella or spicy chili served on individual heated spoons. For chicken skewers, John LaFemina, chef-owner of Ápizz and Peasant, recommends fashioning skewers out of stiff Parmesan breadsticks so there’s no need for guests to carry around a crumpled napkin full of spiky spears.

Main Course
Seasons Greetings: These days, any good kitchen works with what’s in season. If your wedding is in late spring, that means morels, ramps, and asparagus; if it’s early September, think corn, tomatoes, and yellow peppers. “It ensures you’re getting everything at peak quality,” says Kerry Heffernan, chef of Eleven Madison Park. “It’s also more economical. If someone wants peas in the middle of winter, I can get them from somewhere in South America, but they won’t be that good and they’ll cost a fortune.”

Take it Personally: Constructing a menu that reflects your individual food preferences is the first step toward an original meal. “You want it to be your wedding, not the same one a caterer did last weekend at a different venue,” says Gabrielle Hamilton, chef-owner of Prune. Consider serving your all-time favorite foods, no matter how unorthodox they may seem. French-fry fan? Have a station with seven different kinds.

Course Load: Instead of a sit-down dinner (which requires extra wait staff) or a buffet (long lines), LaFemina recommends serving family style. Set up lazy Susans at each table, which, he notes, “encourages socializing when people are assigned to tables with people they don’t know.” If money’s not an issue, Conant suggests serving a series of six small plates (tasting-menu style), pairing each with a different wine.

Dessert
She Faked it: A traditional buttercream wedding cake that feeds 200 can easily cost thousands and taste like it came straight out of the freezer. Jean Georges pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini offers an elegant alternative: a “show” wedding cake. The bottom tiers are made of Styrofoam covered in fondant icing; the top two are real. “The couple can cut into the second layer and give each other a bite, saving the top tier for their first anniversary,” he explains. Iuzzini then makes a more delicate (and therefore more delicious) sheet-cake version of the cake that can be served along with a selection of plated desserts—for variety.

My Big Fat French Wedding: Dessert is a great way to incorporate a couple’s cultural backgrounds. If your grandparents were born in, say, France, chocolate legend Jacques Torres suggests a croquembouche, a French wedding confection made of stacked, cream-filled profiteroles that are caramelized together. Marcus Samuelsson, chef-owner of Aquavit and Riingo, offers a traditional Swedish suggestion: a princess cake—layers of white sponge cake, vanilla custard, whipped cream, and raspberry preserves covered in a thick marzipan coating. “The everyday version is a light-green color,” he says. “You’ll see it in any nice coffee shop in Sweden, but for weddings, it’s made in pink or off-white, then decorated with icing details or flowers.”

Sugar Substitutes: If you don’t have a sweet tooth, end the meal on a savory note. At Hamilton’s own wedding, she served Burrata, a custardy cheese from Puglia, as her finishing course. Jehangir Mehta, pastry chef at Aix, crafts tiny boxes of caramelized fennel wrapped in—get this—paper that’s custom-made to match the fabric of the bride’s gown. Consider serving your all-time favorite foods, no matter how unorthodox they seem. You want it to be your wedding, not the same one a caterer did last weekend at a different venue.

From the 2004 New York Wedding Guide

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