SF and Jen’s mezze spread in Beacon, NY. Photo by Kelly Sweda

All the Feels (and Foods)

Another version of this piece was originally published in Brooklyn Magazine: The Home and Design Issue, printed Summer 2017, №35. Edited by Sid Orlando.

An altruistic catering chef on designing menus at the intersection of empathy and good eats.

Smoke. Anise. “Citrus fresh.” Cherry. Bourbon. The outdoors. These words were the inspiration behind two key menu components — smoked fennel-orange pickles and bourbon-cherry BBQ sauce — for a celebration I catered at Ridgewood’s Onderdonk House. Samantha and Zephyr chose these flavors and I spent three weeks testing the BBQ sauce, meeting to finalize other details and logistics of their event while experimenting with the sauce until it was really something magical. My gift to the couple was a large quart jar of the sauce for them to use in the future — a gift to spark sensory memories of their day, and the unique and special time we’d spent together shaping it.

Samantha and Zephyr cut their cake made by a close friend.

I used to work in technology by day, so when people discovered that I’m also a wedding caterer, they winced, “Isn’t that a lot of work?”

Planning menus, applying for venue permits, hiring staff, cooking the meal itself: it is a lot of work. But I like it — because the work is about more than just making delicious food. Behind each event, there’s a complex web of emotions, memories, and needs to navigate, a shared foray into experiential design that can never be itemized on an invoice. It takes communication, anticipation, and compassion to design a truly seamless event, and a menu that does more than just feed people. In my mind, working with catering clients is as much an emotional exchange as as a monetary one.

When I first start working with a couple, I want to get to know them in an honest way. I ask them to look through my portfolio of food photos — what do they like? What turns them on — and off? We typically meet for drinks or snacks to just talk it through in the earliest phases; greasing the wheels helps loosen things up, and feeling at ease with each other from the beginning is key to sharing the kind of unfiltered information that’ll yield the best results. I ask a lot of questions and prefer to get answers right away, from the gut.

Adam and Mitchell wanted to marry their Jewish and Japanese Hawaiian heritages on their menu.

We go through a “definitely/never” brainstorm. I make a list of everything couples love and another list of everything they hate before we start talking about locking in the menu.

It’s a creative prompt — a mini-episode of Chopped starts playing in my head — and an important dive into the clients’ feelings about food. We consider whether ingredients will be in season at the time of the event — will eating muted, mealy heirloom tomatoes actually be enjoyable in the winter? Can we up the ante on a dish we’re thinking about by adding something that’ll be perfect and bold and ripe, like summer strawberries? — and whether they fit within the budget. (Pro tip: thinking through the menu’s impact on the financials is essential to reducing stress.)

The definitely/never exercise also helps me identify how to channel comfort and nostalgia into each dish and menu. With the “definitely” list comes stories, sweet (and sometimes bittersweet) memories, and new ideas. The “never” list offers a glimpse into a couple’s eating dynamic. Perhaps they avoid certain cuisines altogether or have another more often because it caters to both of their palates or preferences.

Maybe one of them is picky and it’s an ongoing source of conflict to be handled with care. Or maybe, say, the bride is gluten free, the groom is a vegetarian who hates cilantro, and the father of the groom is a raw vegan. Paying close attention to the details isn’t just important for keeping people healthy (ignoring an allergy could be dangerous), but it also creates a sense of being cherished. An easier eating experience means more relaxed guests — and a more relaxed day. Eliminating, or at the very least reducing, sources of anxiety leave you with more bandwidth to effectively handle the things that feel out of control — like a late Amazon shipment, a surprise last-minute cost, unexpected guests, or crappy weather.

Working for a sense of calm and comfort around food is especially helpful when the scale of an event has other tensions running high. Even the most tight-knit and supportive families can spiral into guilty late-night texting, quiet (or loud) judgment about life decisions and the wedding itself, and concerns over budget.

And plain old feelings are a big part of it — while we’re all gathered here to celebrate an explosion of love, people can easily feel de-prioritized or ignored if the couple do things their own way or they don’t end up playing the role they wanted to play. Thoughtful, collaborative menu planning can help mitigate the potential for some of that.

Jeff mans the grill for Lucy and Ben’s wedding at Pioneerworks. Photo by Heather Phelps-Lipton.

For a lovely summer night at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, I developed a BBQ menu to go along with a Lucy’s mother’s jars of dilly beans she was bringing from upstate New York — pulled pork sliders, lemon shrimp skewers, and grilled Cornish game hens smothered in herb butter — which made those beans (and mom) an essential and prioritized part of the whole experience. Sometimes I recommend inviting family members who might be feeling left out to contribute to the meal in meaningful ways: bringing trays of cookies one of the clients loved as a kid, or baking their family-famous pies. (Dessert is not my strong suit, so I welcome cakes from siblings or sheet pans of brownies that I can put out as the dance floor starts to heat up). It feels good to have this brand of symbiosis, feeling more part of the family than hired gun, and it’s an excellent way to involve guests if your event is the sort that can be a little more flexible and hands on.

A mark of successfully designing not just a menu but an experience is when I see celebrants actually eat during their weddings. While I was walking through the McCarren Greenmarket after finishing a long morning of working on my first cookbook, a Sam and Nico got in touch: “I know you really need something else to do right now so… would you cater our wedding?! Our hearts are set on a burrito bar.” Not only was it basically unheard of to have a Chipotle-like assembly line at a wedding, but I knew how important burritos were to these two.

We did a tasting and dry run of the menu disguised as a burrito pop-up at Daddy’s (RIP!). It was a simple spread with two proteins — tofu and chipotle chicken — with roasted-tomato salsa, spring greens, sour cream, white cheddar, brown rice, and cinnamon black beans. On their wedding day, instead of sitting at a table or being shuffled from guest to guest, they hid out in the kitchen with my team while we cranked out burrito after burrito. This hot and fresh meal was the main event for them. They wanted a minute to be together — and to have some uninterrupted peace to enjoy eating!

Nico, me, Sam and our burrito babies. Photo by Amber Marlow.

I love that the couples I work with can lean on me to be part therapist, part little sister, and part pillar of support. And while it’s nearly impossible to get ahead of all the potential bad news that can come up around a high-pressure event, with food, we can create flexibility, a sense of comfort, and something that won’t let you down. We can make more than a meal. That feeling of control over one element of the day can make all the other problems feel like they’ve faded away.

Good food is emotionally participatory. It makes you feel welcome, loved, and looked after. In my work, the goal is to communicate the flavor of a story as you take each bite. It’s to make an experience — and a really good (tasting) memory.

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Jenn de la Vega is a caterer, editor-at-large of Put A Egg On It, and veteran community manager living in Greenpoint. Her first cookbook, Showdown: Comfort Food, Chili & BBQ, is out now on Page Street Publishing.

Jenn is available to cater your party, bring you cheese boards or write more touchy-feely pieces like this one. Browse her full list of services on her blog: Randwiches.