Big-Day Dining

When it comes to today’s wedding reception menus, the rule is there are no rules. Chefs and catering managers say brides and grooms want to play an active role in choosing what their guests will eat, and they don’t feel bound by tradition. Instead, they opt for foods they love, ranging from French fries for appetizers to donuts for dessert.

Treats and Trends

Even though couples can choose any food they want for their reception, some trends have emerged. Russ Spezial, general manager of Toulouse Gourmet Catering, says he sees “a return to comfort food.” Hand-passed appetizers might include miniature portions of chicken and waffles, or filet over mashed potatoes, or shrimp and grits. People like the idea of “farm to table” menu items that emphasize fresh food from local suppliers.

In place of baked potato bars, Spezial’s clients like grits bars, with assorted toppings and condiments. Beef carving stations are being spiffed up with baskets of small, artisanal rolls; guests can also put their slices of beef over arugula salad with a vinaigrette sauce.

Other “build your own” stations feature cochon de lait, New Orleans debris sliders and alligator sausage.

For dessert, brides and grooms like to extend the options to include more choices than cake, Spezial says. Often desserts are “minis,” such as mini moon pies. Cupcakes, a must at parties for several years, are losing their drawing power, he says.

Spezial says the vast majority of weddings he caters are evening buffet receptions with a bar. Here, the trend is away from wine and beer and more toward craft cocktails.
Presentation remains important, but flavor is right up there, too. The goal, he says, is to have guests say the food tasted just as good as it looked.

Most of the weddings Ralph Brennan Catering and Events handles are buffets as well, says Executive Chef Steven Marsella. The venues he oversees include Ralph’s on the Park, Heritage Grill and others. His clients like to include both meat and fish dishes on their reception menus. As a change from beef, Marsella might offer pork loin stuffed with apple and fennel, or with a Cajun-style stuffing. Fish offerings depend on the season; popular spring choices include crawfish pasta or crawfish maque choux.

Like Spezial, Marsella sees a lot of requests for small, pick-up desserts like mini beignets. “It’s fun,” he says. People also like mini comfort foods, such as sliders, or macaroni truffle cheese fritters. These tiny treats are easy to eat and have a big flavor impact.

A popular appetizer is a variation on sushi, with seared tuna, or portions of daikon salad served with small bamboo spoons.

Marsella says he occasionally caters themed receptions. A wedding reception at the historic Hermann-Grima House in the French Quarter had a nostalgic look. The couple decorated with props like an old typewriter and suitcases and had a band that played traditional jazz. For a wedding he catered in Miami, the theme was “Winter Wonderland.” The effect was stunning, but required a designer.Most brides and grooms just want their reception to be elegant and enjoyable.

Special Requests

Vegan, vegetarian, ethnic and gluten-free menus are becoming more common, Marsella says. It isn’t difficult to accommodate these requests as long as you give the caterers sufficient notice.

Gwen DeFraites has helped many a bride and groom in her 14 years as director of catering for Le Pavillon Hotel, and she reassures them that on their special day, their cuisine choices will be honored. “It’s all about them,” says DeFraites, who has served baked macaroni and cheese and chicken tenders for those who wanted them. In general, she says, clients want a mixture of the traditional, like pasta and carving stations, with New Orleans favorites, such as oyster shooters or beignets.

Sometimes meeting a request takes a bit of improvisation. To please a bride who wanted French fries, DeFraites had waiters pass large shot glasses in which the fried potato sticks stood in little pools of ketchup.

Desserts can also be individualized. A groom who worked as a policeman asked to have donuts stacked in the shape of a wedding cake. His mother decorated the table with miniature police cars. Other popular desserts are local treats like bread pudding. Like others, DeFraites finds the cupcake craze waning.

Because brides and grooms can be too busy (or excited) to eat at their reception, DeFraites makes sure they get a full array of goodies sent to their guest room after the party is over.
Lacee Arbo of Portobello Catering says the couples she meets spend a lot of time trying to make their receptions unique. Arbo, Portobello’s executive chef and general sales manager, says there are plenty of variations on the ordinary, such as chocolate stations and pasta stations. The guests like being able to choose which fruits to dip in the chocolate, or which toppings they want on their pasta.

Another popular innovation is replacing the steamship round so often found at carving stations with a mixed grill that includes grilled tenderloin, pieces of fish, chicken and duck, and a variety of tasty sausages. She pairs the meats with rolls flavored with rosemary or roasted garlic and offers unusual sauces such as raspberry pepper jelly.


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