Sunday, March 4, 2007

Finding a Caterer

Finding a caterer was a task I was dreading. Last summer when we first moved to this area and decided this was where we wanted to have the wedding, it seemed like it was going to be impossible to find recommendations. We just didn't know the area and didn't know too many people here, let alone people who'd had weddings here. Just to find a venue, we got one of those Here Comes the Guide magazines and figured out not only what looked nice in our area, but what we could afford. But the notes for our venue said we had to use one of their caterers. I thought of this as a curse, assuming they'd have one or two regular caterers with lousy food that we'd be stuck with. And good food is one of the things we want at our wedding. We'd been to too many catered events with dry chicken, those snowflake dinner rolls, and salad drowned in vinigrette to cover up less-than-fresh veggies.

But then we saw that the venue's list of preferred caterers had many options. That was a good thing. It was nice to have the guideline without having to open the phonebook and search through hundreds. But it wasn't so many that it would be overwhelming to research. And on the day we first visited the venue, a chef was there setting up for a wedding happening that day and gave me his card. The key to my caterer: When I mentioned my dietary need to this chef -- food has to be gluten-free -- he knew exactly what I was talking about. I had a good feeling about this guy.

Here's the deal on gluten. It's a protein found in wheat and several other grains. Many people have an intolerance and/or allergy to it, and in people like my brother and me it's a genetic disorder called celiacs disease. It seems like wheat is in everything--pizza, pasta, bread, cereal, cookies, cake--anything made with regular flour. Gluten also pops up in sauces, where it's used as a thickener, and in additives in foods you might not think, like yogurt and canned tomato soup. Even when restaurants, caterers, airlines, etc., promise a special gluten-free meal they often get it wrong. Breaded chicken or croutons in the salad are mistakes. And so far, every time I've requested a special meal at a catered event, it's been forgotten or served much later than everyone else's food. I did not want special meals for my brother and me at the wedding. It's my whole special day! I want the same food as everyone else. So that means the whole menu has to be both delicious and gluten-free. And that's why it's so important to me that my chef knows exactly what gluten is and where it occurs.

I still wanted to do some research to make sure I was getting the best deal. I had some brochures and web addresses for most of the caterers on the list. After looking over menus and prices, what those prices included, and the presentation of their websites and brochures (I'm not trusting someone with a lot of typos or vague information), I narrowed down to 4 that I wanted to get specific quotes from. One never emailed me back. One had no idea what I was talking about when I mentioned the gluten. It can sneak into so much food that I couldn't take the chance with them making a mistake. Two knew about the gluten and gave us pretty good quotes--one of those was the chef I had already met.

So then it came down to tasting the food. Our venue holds tastings for their various caterers. One evening we were able to taste one of our two catering choices. Dry chicken and soaked salad greens. Luckily it was not "my" chef. He was unfortunately not there the same night. On the night he was there, I couldn't make it so Mike had to go alone. I was hoping not to be disappointed and I didn't want to start my search all over again. Mike's verdict: The food was fantastic! Mike and I have the same idea for the great food we want served, so I trust him. I still haven't actually tasted it! (I will at their next tasting in a couple weeks.)

Our dream caterer: Serves You Right. We are on our way to delicious food. We sent a deposit as soon as Mike deemed the food delicious. We're working on finalizing the menu now. The quote they gave us was very good for their basic package and they outlined the exact cost for extra food and services; they include things like cake cutting and corkage fees in the basic price, so there are no surprise fees. They use mostly local, organic food, so that's a bonus. They've done entirely gluten-free menus before and I feel comfortable putting my dietary needs in their hands. The bread will be "regular," because superiour gluten-free bread is almost nonexistant and some of the crackers for the cheese will also be "regular." But everything else--veggies, rice, meat, wedding cake--will be gluten-free. I guarrantee that if I didn't tell anyone they wouldn't notice. (Mike's 100% behind the gluten-free menu. We keep our separate breads and cereals, but most of our meals at home are gluten-free. He doesn't want me hassled with a "special meal" on our wedding day either.)

Serves You Right does many events at our venue so know exactly how it should be run. And they are attentive and have answered all my questions in a timely manner. Having great food is one of our highest priorities, and one we were willing to pay for. With Serves You Right, we might be affording the prime rib instead of the chicken breast.

I get the impression that a lot of high-priced catering involves a lot of presentation and dry chicken. Make sure you get recommendations on the professionalism of your caterer and their servers. And get all of their services, and the price for it, in writing. You may have to rent tables, china, or linens yourself, or pay even more for the caterer to provide them. A great deal on food doesn't mean much if your guests have to eat it from paper plates on their laps.

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