On October 18, we celebrated my daughter and new son-in-law’s wedding in Purcellville, Virginia. I could go on and on about every detail — the gorgeous setting at Shadow Creek Weddings & Events; the most beautiful wedding flowers I’ve ever seen, thanks to the unflappable Barbara Von Elm of Growing Wild Floral; the well-researched wine and all-Colorado beer selections (my husband’s job); and of course the heartwarming gathering of family and friends to witness God’s hand in uniting two wonderful young people.
But let’s not forget one thing. I’m a food writer and editor.
I wanted to be sure we fed people well. And not just well, but memorably well.
My daughter put me in charge of choosing and working with the catering and event service, which was far and away the biggest budget item for a wedding of this size (about 150 guests). After a lot of research, we settled on A La Carte Catering & Events based in Haymarket, Virginia.
Let me just say up front: Good call. I lost count of the number of people who told me that this was the BEST wedding food they had ever had. And most of it was gluten free!
Here are 5 tips to help you choose a great wedding menu and caterer.
1. Go local and seasonal. As you peruse caterers’ menu options, keep in mind that your selections will be at their best if made with locally sourced, seasonal ingredients rather than out-of-season produce from another hemisphere. Don’t force fresh strawberries into a January wedding menu! ALC partners with local farms and producers, so I knew the building-block ingredients would be great.
2. Think about the crowd. Remember: This meal is a gift to your guests. If possible, arrange for a tasting so you can really get a sense of the flavors (ALC provided a full complimentary tasting lunch in June; these photos are from that event). At that time, talk over with your caterer the type of guests you expect will attend: Do you need reliably gluten-free or dairy-free options, and does your caterer even know what that entails? Will the crowd be predominantly younger or older? (Younger people tend to eat more heartily.)
For our guests and based on the bride’s and groom’s tastes, we wanted a mostly gluten-free menu that said “comfort food” rather than fancy, spicy, or exotic, with food beautifully prepared and presented but above all delicious.
We decided on balanced, classic dishes with nearly universal appeal: a beef entree — braised short ribs, left, the crowd favorite — and, for guests who don’t eat red meat, a bone-in roasted chicken entree (pictured below right) because bone-in doesn’t dry out nearly as much as boneless chicken breasts, served with sweet-potato wedges (not pictured). All of the ingredients were seasonal, gluten-free (most were also dairy-free), and hearty, perfect for a chilly October evening.
3. Play up the veggies. Most caterers will provide a special vegetarian plate for veg guests, but we elected to include a vegetarian entree in the buffet that everyone would love: an amazing Greek mac ‘n’ cheese made with fresh spinach and feta (below left). That way our vegetarian guests would have a solid entree and could also pick and choose from among the other vegetarian options on the buffet, which included a stunningly good rosemary polenta and roasted fall veggies (both pictured above with the beef but served separately at the wedding), as well as a gorgeous harvest salad (below right).
4. Pay attention to the staff. You’ll be sending a lot of emails back and forth with whatever caterer you choose, so you’re going to have to like dealing with the people. Chelsea, one of ALC’s perpetually cheerful event coordinators, virtually held my and my daughter’s hand through every emailed question, every decision, every back-and-forth negotiation, and every freakout moment with grace and patience. During the reception itself, she had a look on her face that made it seem like this was the first and best wedding she’d ever been to … even though she probably does this at least three times a week.
5. Don’t skimp on labor. ALC’s budget included more staff than the other bidders — 15 total, including Chelsea, 2 bartenders, 1 chef, 1 sous chef, and 10 servers for an estimated 150 guests. At first we thought this might be overkill. But given the level of setup; cocktail, dinner, and dessert service; and takedown/cleanup, boy was I glad we had that many people. They kept the event moving seamlessly, and they did it cheerfully from start to finish.
Our final menu lineup:
Appetizers: Sweet potato cakes with duck confit; coconut-coriander shrimp (GF); twice-baked mini potatoes with truffle oil (GF) — below
Salad: Roasted butternut squash with fuji apples, fall greens, bleu cheese, and candied walnuts, served with a lemon vinaigrette (GF, V)
Entrees: Barolo-braised beef short ribs with rosemary polenta and harvest vegetables (GF); bone-in, herb-marinated roast chicken with balsamic glaze and lightly curried sweet potatoes (GF); Greek mac ‘n’ cheese with fresh spinach, feta, and a hint of cinnamon (V)
Dessert: This was fun! Along with comfort-food theme, the bride and groom chose a dessert bar with chocolate chip, snickerdoodle, and peanut butter cookies; apple, cherry, and pecan mini pies; and farm-fresh milk served in adorable mini milk bottles with straws. For gluten-free eaters, we also ordered chocolate crackle cookies and a small wedding cake from The Happy Tart, a dedicated and awesome gluten-free bakery.
Have you planned or are you planning a wedding or other catered event? What factors were important to you? What made the experience a good (or bad) one? Share your experiences or ask questions in the comments!