WRITTEN BY ROCHELLE BILOW
Hiring a caterer can be one of the most daunting tasks when planning a wedding. After all, as the years pass, people may forget the fact that the DJ played the Electric Slide twice in a row, but they’ll hold tight to the memories of the meal—for better or worse. Well, at least the kind of folks we hang out with will. We spoke with Peter Callahan and Marcey Brownstein, both caterers in New York City, about the most important tips and biggest mistakes couples make when working with caterers. Read on to make sure you’re not making any wedding catering faux pas.
1. Don’t Forget to Research the Venue
As Brownstein points out, there are two styles of wedding venues: All-inclusive ones with on-site caterers, and those that allow for outside vendors to handle the food. If you have your heart set on a specific independent caterer and a banquet hall that doesn’t allow outside food, you’ve got a problem. Of course, some venues will allow couples to “buy out” the on-site catering and bring in their choice, but let’s be real: Most couples aren’t working with that kind of cash.
If you decide to bring in an independent caterer, Callahan urges couples to do their research about the venue’s electrical and technological capabilities. If you have your heart set on perfectly seared steaks for 200 guests, but your venue only has one small induction burner, well, keep dreaming. The caterer will also do their own research about the space, but it’s up to the couple to get the ball rolling.
It takes more than booze to keep your guests happy—don’t let the food be an afterthought.
2. First Impressions Really Do Matter
“You can be a good writer, and create a beautiful pamphlet describing great food,” says Callahan, “But it takes a lot more to actually cook it.” What should really seal the deal is an initial meeting with the caterer. Brownstein won’t even write up that proposal without an initial 15 to 20-minute call. Why is this important? It isn’t until you get face (or phone) time with the caterer that you can really know what he or she is all about, and vice-versa.
If your caterer doesn’t offer food at the meeting, take note. Both Callahan and Brownstein consider this the first opportunity to express their style to clients, and will make the extra effort to offer something nibble-y to break the ice (don’t expect a full-out tasting quite yet, though—more on that in a minute). In short, don’t allow yourself to be wooed by glossy brochures and an attractive website. What matters is how you feel when you actually speak to the caterer.
3. Create a Budget and Be Honest About It
“I want to perform magic for everyone,” says Callahan (that’s the mark of a great caterer), “but some things are just not possible.” To avoid heartbreak, create and understand a budget before beginning a discourse with your caterer. They’ll be honest with you and help you discern what’s doable and what’s beyond the realm of possibility. “You want a caterer that’s not afraid to say no,” explains Callahan, and Brownstein agrees, adding that if a caterer promises the impossible for cheap, it’s either going to end up a disaster…or you’ll receive an unpleasant surprise when the bill arrives.
4. Let Your Gluten-Paleo-Vegan Flag Fly…But Don’t Make Grandma Wave It
If you have special dietary needs or restrictions, the time to let your caterer know is as soon as possible. The sooner he or she knows about your soy allergy or hatred of cilantro, the more gracefully the catering team can work around it. And besides, explains Callahan, it can help them create a menu that’s a nice reflection of you and your sweetie’s personal, quirky style. (For example, Callahan once catered a wedding for a bride who adored pickled herring; he found a way to put it on the menu as a snack during cocktail hour.)
However, this is not, says Brownstein, an excuse to push your beliefs or restrictions on the rest of your family and friends. “As a caterer, it’s my responsibility to please the wedding couple and all of their guests,” she says, and that includes “meat-and-potatoes-only” Uncle Fred, and “there-must-be-a-fish-option” crazy cousin. Thankfully, there’s a happy medium that falls between gluten-free wedding cake and well-done filet mignon for 300: Skilled caterers will work to make the food reflective of the couples’ tastes and style, while ensuring it’s also widely acceptable. “You shouldn’t ever dumb down your menu,” warns Callahan.
Will a tomato salad in December taste as sweet?
5. Conduct the Tasting in Season
Many caterers won’t conduct a formal tasting until they’ve been booked and the contract is signed—this is less a chance for them to woo you than it is for you both to create the menu of your dreams. And, says Brownstein, don’t be shocked if your caterer charges for the tasting. Conducting a full-scale tasting without cutting corners is one of the most important part of the process, so both the customer and the caterer should take it seriously.
Callahan also recommends conducting the tasting in or as close to the season in which the wedding will take place. Your caterer’s amazing heirloom tomato salad may be the best thing on the menu, but you’d never know it if you taste it in December. If that’s not possible, at least try the basic elements of a dish. The fresh basil pesto may not be as good as it will be on the day of your wedding, but at least you’ll know if he or she can roast a chicken thigh to perfection.
6. Don’t Settle Until You Find Your Soulmate
“Your caterer should just get you,” explains Callahan. You waited for years to find your spouse-to-be, so don’t settle on the first caterer you meet (unless it’s love at first sight). Sure, any caterer worth their salt will do their best to pitch you, but it should never feel forced. Although you won’t be spending the rest of your life with the caterer, you will be working closely with them for months. Make sure that he or she is someone you want at your side through the good times and the bad.