Expert Advice from a Caterer

Martha Stewart Weddings, Winter 2011

Richard Nix, Jr.
Saint Louis, Missouri

Known for Seasonal cuisine with a focus on flavor, presentation, and quality

Where to Find Him At Butler's Pantry (he's the president)

Top Tip Don't rush to finalize your menu. Over the course of the planning process, trends will change and you'll develop new ideas. Wait until a couple of months before the event, and it will feel fresh and current.

How can couples find a good caterer?

Word of mouth is everything. Ask friends for recommendations, and find out which companies have exclusive arrangements at the notable venues in your area. Once you get a list of names, spend time browsing their websites. Blogs, where you can see their work in action, are another indication that they have their finger on the pulse of the industry.

Anything to look out for?

Be cautious about multitaskers who insist they can also help with the ceremony. They should be dedicated to the food and service at your party, nothing else. If they balk at providing a cost breakdown, that's another bad sign. Also ask: Are you going to be present at my wedding? A good caterer will guarantee it. And, if they don't offer a follow-up tasting, reconsider.

What are your recommendations for couples as they choose their menus?

Try not to fall for overly complicated food fads. A foam garnish, for example, can add a nice flavor, but it's hard to pull off for a big crowd. What works in a dining room for four people doesn't always translate to a crowd of 200. Your best bet is to keep things simple.

How can couples personalize their food?

Incorporate childhood favorites, things you ate on a memorable vacation or on your first date, or dishes from a beloved restaurant. Or look back even further in time. One of our brides, for instance, requested table-side Caesar salads, which her parents had at their wedding. And if two cultures are coming together, serve a dish from each one as a starter.

Any creative ways to dress up that ubiquitous chicken entree?

For winter, I like a Cornish game hen covered in a Bing-cherry and port demi-glace on a bed of toasted farro. Chicken Napoleon, layered with puff pastry, mushrooms, and goat cheese, and finished with chive veloute, is also divine.

Thoughts on waiter service versus buffet?

Sit-down meals are more traditional, but they tie guests to their seats. If you have a lively crowd, you might want to have a buffet, which lets people get up and move around. That said, it's not necessarily less expensive than a sitdown. The savings can be eaten up in quantity.

Any suggestions for those who'd like to save money without sacrificing quality?

You can easily save 15 to 20 percent on food and service by choosing a Friday or Sunday in the off-season (usually the colder months). Dinner is the priciest meal, but it's possible to lower your expenses with a cocktail-style set-up: heavy hors d'oeuvres and seating for only half the guests. Or serve lunch or afternoon tea instead. It's more affordable and just as elegant. I also love a good brunch -- with a crepe station and a do-it-yourself Bloody Mary bar.

Along the same lines, does serving only beer and wine save a ton of cash?

Actually, no. Depending on how many options you offer, liquor bars can be more cost-effective. There are about 25 drinks in a liter of vodka, whereas a bottle of wine has just five.

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