Creative Cuisine for Wedding Receptions

How to make sure your wedding food is fab—and guests are still talking about it long after your sparkler send-off.
by the knot

There's a familiar staple at weddings that caterers go to great lengths to disguise. But no amount of smothering in sauces or garnishing with parsley will prevent guests from knowing what the main course is: chicken. And while we can all agree that this innocuous bird rarely offends dining guests, when it comes to receptions there are alternatives aplenty that will please even the most discerning palates. We've sampled the options and bring you the latest on food trends from several wedding industry notables, to help you plan your menu.

Creative Cocktails

There's more to beverages than iced tea and an open bar. Usher your guests into the reception with an eye-catching cocktail. Special events designer and planner David Tutera is a whiz when it comes to whetting whistles. He's planned parties for the likes of Elton John and Prince Charles, and created signature cocktails for celebrity brides Angie Harmon and Toni Braxton. "For specialty drinks, you're either going to use vodka or champagne," says Tutera. One of his tricks is serving cocktails that match the color scheme of the wedding. "They add that little detailed touch," he says, "and eliminate the need for a full bar." Another bonus according to Tutera: "People look great holding them in photos." Don't stop with the reception. Serve a different signature drink during each of your wedding events -- from the rehearsal dinner to the morning-after buffet.

New Ways to Nosh

The idea of cocktails is so appealing to some couples that they base their entire reception upon them. "Cocktail parties allow for more variety of food, which in turn allows for more creativity in the menu and presentation," says Alison Awerbuch, partner and chief culinary officer for Abigail Kirsch Catering and Events. The environment at a cocktail reception is casual, with no assigned seating and a constant flow of food, conversation and, of course, spirits. Awerbuch recommends a three-phase cocktail party that evolves over the course of the reception.

During phase one, bite-size hors d'oeuvres are served. "We incorporate many different ethnicities into our hors d'oeuvres with hints of authentic spices, cooking methods, and ingredients," says Awerbuch. "Asian, Latin American, Indonesian, Moroccan, and Mediterranean are all popular." Examples include Portobello mushroom steak fries with balsamic aioli, crisp nori tuna with wasabi, tobiko and papaya relish, and Moroccan spiced lamb pastels with preserved lemon chutney.

"In the second hour we butler small vessels that are like an amuse-bouche or tiny starter you would get in a restaurant," continues Awerbuch. Four to eight different items are presented at once. Guests are greeted with everything from martini glasses to skewers made from sugarcane that serve up such dishes as passion fruit vodka lobster martini on coconut jasmine rice and lemongrass-threaded carpaccio of tuna drizzled with mint chili vinaigrette. If the reception will last for several hours, couples should bear their guests' appetites and dinner hour in mind by adding some food bars to the mix.

"In the third and final phase we switch to butlered hors d'oeuvre sweets that are interesting and unique combinations of flavors, and hot, cold, and frozen items," says Awerbuch. The offerings range from an amethyst cachepot filled with purple berry shortcake infused with lavender cream to warm banana wontons drizzled in chocolate with peanut nougatine.

Awerbuch is seeing more couples entertain with multicourse wine tasting dinners. Much like a chef's tasting menu, signature dishes are each served with a complementary wine choice. The meal can include from four to seven courses. "Typically, you start with a hot fish course, then a vegetable, followed by an entree. After the entree, a cheese course and a dessert," Awerbuch advises.

Make it Personal

Treating guests to some of your favorite dishes is another way to go. When formulating a menu, Awerbuch considers the bride and groom's favorite fare, as well as family culture and travel experiences. Guests learn more about the selected dishes through an explanation written on the menu card or announced during a toast. For a couple who shared a love of sailing and planned to pilot their way across the ocean during the honeymoon, Awerbuch whipped up something special: She transported the entire wedding party to the high seas through a dinner that kicked off with miniature raw bars shared among every four guests. "There were hammered buckets filled with crushed ice and brimming with jumbo steamed shrimp, oysters, clams, and lobster," she recounts. "In each bucket were miniature bottles of Tabasco, cocktail sauce served from scallop shells, netting, lemons, seafood crackers, and oyster forks."

Comfort Food

Perhaps your tastes are simple, and you hanker for grilled cheese sandwiches accompanied by tomato soup after getting hitched. Awerbuch suggests serving chilled heirloom yellow tomato soup in a shot glass and warm Grafton cheddar and bacon panini on grain bread, or what she describes as designer comfort foods. "This trend is about taking more traditional items and contemporizing them," she says. Great news for lovers of macaroni and cheese!

Precise Presentation

Details, details, details. Weddings are full of them. When it comes to reception fare, don't scrimp. "People get so caught up in menu selection, they forget about presentation," says Tutera. "There are ways to make your food thematically, seasonally, and colorwise match your wedding," he says. Tutera begins with a look at the current season's hues and fashion trends. When visualizing the overall look of your tables, consider using various shapes and different colors for the dishes. Elements from the wedding can also be reflected through food presentation. If your dress has distinctive buttons or corset ties, mimic the design on serving plates. This can be as simple as lining up morsels symmetrically, adding flourish with a garnish, or drizzling balsamic vinegar. "There are teeny ways to make it visually happen," says Tutera. "It looks spectacular and entices you to see what the next course will be."

Dessert Decadence

Whether they've saved room or not, guests always manage to devour dessert. When it comes to wedding cake, Sam Godfrey, founder of Perfect Endings, has a motto: It's dessert first and art second. Godfrey is seeing a resurgence of what he calls vintage flavors at weddings -- those cakes from your childhood that set your heart racing. These can be anything from old-fashioned coconut, layered chocolate, banana, poppy seed, red velvet, or pound cake. "Your wedding is an introduction to family and friends of your taste and style," says Godfrey. "Even if it breaks any of the cardinal rules, choose something that you enjoy eating and don't be shy about it." As for the exterior, Godfrey says simplicity is waning. Simple and beautiful can be striking, but it gets a little boring after a while. People are daring to be bold and more detailed.

Beyond the wedding cake, Godfrey recommends offering a dessert buffet. "Use the buffet to supplement the cake, not replace it." Godfrey has included nostalgic desserts ranging from homemade Ding Dongs and cupcakes served with milk to a variety of beautiful petit fours, which he calls dessert hors d'oeuvres. "They're colorful, bite-size jewels of pastry."

For chocolate lovers, fountains of the rich milky stuff are taking center stage at receptions. David Schoffstall and his wife Wendy of Chocolate Fountain Fun say the multitiered fountains of flowing chocolate tend to draw a crowd. "It's fun to watch and tastes so good and fresh," says Schoffstall. Couples offer a variety of "dippers" for guests, such as fruit, pretzels, and marshmallows, to be plunked into a white or milk chocolate mixture of Ghiradelli chocolate. Schoffstall recommends using wooden toothpicks for more secure spearing of dipping elements, and says to avoid splatter by not placing a chocolate fountain outdoors on a windy day.

Late-Night Eats

The evening doesn't have to end with dessert. Brides and grooms who like to kick up their heels until the wee hours can keep the festivities rolling with after-party sustenance. "We serve everything from kitschy gourmet hamburgers and milkshakes to a buffet with omelets and sweet, savory crepes," says Awerbuch of postreception grub. Or break out the decadent fare while the reception is still in full swing.

Toward the end of one of our favorite weddings, after guests had loosened up and danced for hours, waiters offered wrapped hamburgers from McDonalds on silver trays. This was an upscale affair in a fancy ballroom, and yet the couple had enough confidence to know that this unexpected treat was just what the crowd would be hungry for.

Take Out

Don't forget the doggie bags! Remind guests of the delights they've experienced by sending them home with a bite or two. Awerbuch packs giveaways such as brownies made from the mother of the bride's recipe, or hand-painted monogrammed cookie lollipops with an accompanying note from the happy couple.

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