The Essex Room’s Executive Chef, Ned Grieg, discusses options for catering at your wedding.
John Maher: Hi. I’m John Maher, and I’m here today with Chef Ned Grieg, Executive Chef at Woodman’s, and the Essex Room in Essex, Massachusetts. Today, we’re talking about Wedding Catering. Welcome, Ned.
Ned Grieg: Good afternoon, John.
Wedding Catering Food Options
John Maher: Ned, how many food options should I make available to my guests at a wedding.
Ned: As a rule, what we do with the Essex Room, is there will be anywhere from four to six hors d’oeuvres that we will pass during the meeting-and-greeting time. That’s what we start with. If it’s a sit down dinner, the salad is usually chosen in advance and/or a soup. They may end up deciding not to have a salad, and they have chilled gazpacho with a little miniature lobster roll on the side.
When it comes to dinner, we try to do two things. We try to make at least two options available to the guest, and they pre‑order the items. One will usually be a fish, a chicken, or a red meat. After realizing we have lots of vegetarians, and not just vegetarians, vegans. Recently, we’ve been doing risotto primavera, and that seems to work out quite well for these guests right now.
John: This would be like the little card that you’d send out with your invitation that you want people to check off. Do you want the fish or do you want the beef, or something like that?
Ned: Yeah. Even after they see that, if you have 200 people sitting down for people, guaranteed you’re going to have 25 that change their mind. It just happens.
Wedding Catering Planning
John: You plan for that as a caterer?
Ned: You always seemingly forget in the heat of the battle, but you go for it anyway. It happens all the time.
John: I’ve been to enough weddings where the waiter will come by and say, “Which did you order?” I’ll say, “I have no idea. I don’t remember. What were the options again?” I’d just have to say what I think that I probably ordered.
Ned: You know that’s going to happen, and we take that into consideration. We usually make 10 or 15 more orders of each item on every 100 or 120 guests. Then if everything goes according to plan, hopefully, you’ll have something left over, and we usually give that to our staff that night that maybe working for their dinner.
John: What about people who have allergies? You mentioned vegans and planning for that a little bit. Do I need to let the caterer know how many people at my wedding reception have allergies?
Ned: Absolutely. You have to. Otherwise, they’re going to have a miserable night. We actually have one bride that has 27 allergies that she has. Twenty seven things, are you kidding me? It’s crazy. She’s allergic to the smell of eucalyptus. When you get something like that. Yes asboutely. You want to know. You’d better knowing without knowing.
John: That was one person who had 27 allergies?
Ned: One person.
John: I was thinking 27 different people.
Ned: [laughs] No! People do have allergies, and we do accommodate them. At the Essex Room, we practice ServSafe certification and all. We use different color coded cutting boards when we’re preparing different types of things, so there is no cross contamination and those things. It’s important. It really is.
How do you like to be that one person that thought he was getting something that wasn’t in there, and he was allergic to it, and he becomes very sick or can die?
You don’t want to see that ambulance pulling up in front of the Essex Room. That’s not good for your reputation. You really do pay a significant amount of attention to it.
John: You certainly don’t want that to happen at your wedding. Have one of your guests get sick.
Ned: No no, we spend a lot of time making sure that that’s a case and point even if it’s somebody that comes in at the last minute and says, “I can’t eat this. I’m sorry.” We’ll still take care of them.
John: Is it a good idea on that response card to have a little place for, “Do you have any food allergies?” Would that be good to just say that right up front when you’re inviting the guest?
Ned: Yup. The point people at the Essex Room, the people that sell these events, Donna and Faye, they talk to the bride, and the groom, and the groom’s parents, and the bride’s parents, and make sure that that is taken care of. They follow up on it on a regular basis.
Average Price Per Plate For A Wedding
John: What’s an average price per plate for a wedding? What’s usually included with that?
Ned: What we practice at the Essex Room, when you hire us or you decide to have your wedding with us, the room fee includes your service stuff and your china and your tables and everything like that.
You can do upgrades, more pretty china, more pretty linens, more pretty chairs if you choose to do that. A basic wedding – it all depends on what you choose to have for dinner as well.
If you are going to just do, say, chicken and cream spinach and risotto and you’re only serving one item to all your guests, it’s going to cost you a lot less money then if you’re going to be serving fillet mignon, miniature lobster rolls, and glorified salads and petit fours after dinner.
The price range, it really goes anywhere from I’d say…we seem to be anywhere from $56 to $250 a head.
John: Wow. There’s a big range there.
Ned: It is a big range. It really is.
John: Like you said, it depends on the actual items that are being ordered or the number of options that you’re giving to your guests.
Ned: Correct. I did this one wedding down in Connecticut. Here’s for 162 people, and it was 11‑course meal. He was a shipper from Holland. We served 11 courses to these people, all sit down meal. He wanted what they call Russian service, which means one table is served simultaneously at a time.
If there were 10 people at the table, there are 5 wait people just to do that 1 table. Everything goes down all at once. He wanted to make sure that he only had to have three rounds of people go out to serve 162 people. Instead of having 30 wait people, we needed 74 or something of that nature. Your labor cost goes up all of a sudden. Your food can cost more.
People, if you will get really fancy china or Damask cloths or things of that nature, you can spend a lot of money to make it look pretty. You don’t have to. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to have a great time.
Leftover Foods After The Wedding
John: What do wedding caterers typically do with leftover food after the wedding is over?
Ned: We try to make sure there isn’t any! As a rule, when you’re catering an event, for every 100 people, you make an extra 10 portions. That’s your fail safe in case a wait person drops something or people change their mind.
If there were three different choices, so you’re making an extra 30 meals, you may have 25 people working that evening. If everything works out, there should be something left over. We usually give that meal to our staff to eat.
If it’s a buffet, if the things that are left in the buffet – where people want to help themselves, we don’t keep it. We don’t let people take it home, just food‑borne allergens. You never know who coughed on it. Somebody may have come to your event that is sick. Quite frankly, it’s technically against the law for us to send people home with leftover food unless they sign a waiver.
John: It sounds like you’re pretty good about planning ahead and making sure that you don’t have a lot of waste, which is great.
Ned: Once you get good at something, you get good and you know how much you need to do.
Wedding Caterer’s Attire
John: What type of attire do the caterers at weddings typically wear? I’ll bet that depends, again, on how fancy you’re going.
Ned: At the Essex Room, everybody’s dressed in black and white. We have black slacks and trousers on. We’ll have a white button down tux shirt with a bow tie and an apron.
I’ve been to weddings where people will have the tux shirt on, and black slacks but they’ll use what they call a bistro apron that falls all the way to the floor, which I think is really very classy French look kind of concept.
John: Right, that French waiter look.
Ned: They have the towel thrown over their arm or something. It has a really nice look to it. Everybody in the kitchen definitely wear our chef coats with our uniforms on. We need to look professional. We may not be working in our chef coats all day, getting things ready, but if we have to go out front, we have to represent ourselves. An attorney wouldn’t go to do his business in court with cutoff jeans, and a polo shirt on. He’d probably try to look a little bit more appropriate for the part.
John: People might never see you, but in the chance that somebody wants to meet you or says, “Hey, I have a question for the chef. Does he mind coming out and talking to me?” You want to look presentable for them.
Ned: I always end up going out and saying “Hello,” at least to the bride and groom and the parents there. I might even serve them one of their courses just to let them know that I’m there. They’re paying all this money to have this wonderful time. You want to make sure they know that the executive chef is there.
Sit Down Meal vs Stations
John: Do you recommend a sit down meal or a buffet or stations?
Ned: I like stations, personally. I think it’s a lot more fun for your guests. 90% of our events are served meals. Buffets work. They seem to work a little better if you want to budget, because you can get more of a volume out, and you get people to move around a little bit more.
John: My wife and I actually did stations at our wedding. The guests remarked to us, a lot of them, that they enjoyed that because the lines weren’t maybe too long, and they had that opportunity to go, “I’ll go and have a little bit of that.”
Maybe somebody wants their salad first or maybe they want it last. They had that chance to almost create their meal in a way that they wanted to make it. They seemed to like that. That’s a good option for people.
Ned: I do like stations. Because people want to give some speeches and all, they may start off the meal by sitting down to a champagne toast with some amuse-bouche on the table and possibly a salad. Then the stations will open up after everybody gives their token speeches and things, and then you can move on from there.
Ned: Thank you, John.