My very first day as a server for a wedding catering company, I learned an important lesson: Weddings are not for the faint of heart. Whether you’re a guest, a worker or an expectant fiancé(e), the day dawns bright with the promise of high emotions, festivity and very little time to sit down and relax. These are my wedding caterer confessions.
I remember pouring wine to a table of well-dressed men and women, praying to any deity that would listen that I wouldn’t spill a drop of red on the pristine white tablecloth. And, when I thought I’d finished and turned to fill more glasses, a man grabbed me by the wrist and said, “Leave the bottle—I’m the father of the bride.” This, perhaps, was the best advice I was lucky enough to receive on my first day of work.
Since then, I have been to hundreds of weddings, watched just as many ceremonies, and have heard about every existing variation of wedding toasts and speeches (including a particularly moving Star Wars-themed soliloquy from an ever-so-slightly tipsy best man).
My role in these weddings? To hand out tasty bites of decadent appetizers on silver plates and to do my best to blend into the wedding venue walls while simultaneously performing clandestine acts of chaos mitigation. After all, preventing mishaps before they have a chance to happen is the unspoken job of wedding catering staff. On the surface, it may appear that the servers are simply handing out food and pouring out red, white and bubbly like candy on Halloween, but that’s not all there is to the job.
A local Bay catering company, Area Fork Full of Earth Organic Catering, and I have joined forces to share our experiences in the industry. Hopefully, our wedding caterer confessions give future brides and grooms-to-be some valuable first-hand insight and advice on working with (not against) their caterers.
“During the early years of Fork Full, we were hired to cater a wedding in a beautiful home in Sonoma,” said Jasmine Uyer, sales manager at Fork Full of Earth. “The home was a work in progress, and the groom-to-be was an employee of the homeowners, who were both architects. I conducted a site visit about six months before the wedding, so I thought we had all of the information that we needed about the venue’s location and layout.
“But when we arrived to set up, we found that they had renovated the space, and there was a pool in the place where the ceremony was planned to be. The groom figured we could ‘make it work,’ and we did. But lesson learned, always ask if there is a pool in the plan!”
I myself experienced an unexpected pool in the plan when I catered a wedding at a venue that boasted a stunning fountain with turquoise blue waters splashing temptingly in the hot summer afternoon. Even on the clock, the urge to take a quick dip for just a moment was hard to resist. But the venue had a strict $1,000 fine for anyone who dared escape the heat in their purely decorative water feature.
This would have been okay, except for the multitude of (frankly unsupervised, rambunctious) children attending the wedding who were eyeing the fountain as though it were a shining Shangri-La. And so, this pool that was certainly not in the plans became the reason that our company was suddenly short-staffed, sacrificing our servers in shifts to stand watch like pseudo knights of the realm to guard the fountain from surprisingly perseverant children.
“Like any relationship, it’s really important to articulate your priorities and limitations to your caterer,” said Angela Ginsburg, executive chef and owner of A Fork Full of Earth. “We have brides come in and apologize for being wordy, demanding or crazy, but I would rather know someone’s deal-breaker before we start than after.
“Tell us how much you want to spend, how much is too much, if you want to separate your brother’s friends from your sister’s friends. Tell us if you absolutely can’t stand it when people put a cheese board out and it’s attacked by wasps and bees. It’s important to lead with your truth—the good, the bad and the ugly.”
These wise words of advice bring another story to mind: the day I catered an extravagant wedding located on the bride’s family’s ranch. No expense was spared in decking out the venue for the special day, and there were even air-conditioned porta-potties that, I’ll confess with no guilt, I used as an unofficial break room a few times, since they were impeccably clean and cool. It seemed as though everything had been considered, except, of course, the combination of outdoor catering and ranch life.
Guests began arriving—one by one their cars careened past our flimsy tent, tires kicking up enough dirt to form opaque dust clouds. We tried our best to shield the food with our bodies, but didn’t achieve much except ensure we got dirty too. After the dust storms died down, we began setting up a cheese board next to, you guessed it, the barn. The flies began swarming before we’d even had a chance to set the plates on their designated tables, and roughly $350-worth of fine meats and cheeses were fed to the flies that day.
“In catering, the one thing you don’t ask is the one thing that will get you,” said Ginsburg. “If you want someone who is meticulous or if you’re the kind of person who flies by the seat of their pants, clearly know what you want and go with someone who aligns with that. There’s no one way to do it right, and every character is different. Being honest about everything is the best way to get the most out of us. Be willing to build trust—it’s hard because you have ideas about how you want things to go, but there’s a real give and take.”
One particular soon-to-be mother-in-law (who shall remain unnamed—you know who you are) showed a particular lack of trust in our staff during what was set to be a relatively easy workday. She was always one step ahead of us and, even though her heart was in the right place, her micromanaging created more problems than it resolved. The most notable, i.e., annoying, thing she did was arrive early and pre-set the head table to show the staff how a “properly made table” should look.
The thing is, she had all the knives facing the wrong direction and switched the proper placement of wine vs. champagne glasses. We fixed it up and continued setting the other tables, only to realize we were two tablecloths short. She had used them to set the head table. So, we unmade the entire thing, remade it, and wished the mother-in-law had trusted us enough to go and enjoy the big day with the rest of her family.
Serving delicious food to a wedding full of dashing dudes and dames may seem exciting, and it is. But it only takes a few of these events to realize that many nights will inevitably end with you filling in on unofficial duties, like politely explaining to a guest, in front of their date, that staff isn’t permitted to flirt with them. Or standing on a barstool in front of a riotous crowd, yelling over the din of their unified chant for “whisky!” that the bar is now closed.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the bride and her people and a not once-in-a-lifetime thing for the caterer,” said Ginsburg. “For the bride, it’s a totally organic, unique, bespoke experience, which is only possible because it is part of a system that works.”
There is a singular joy in being a part of someone’s most special day, and I always wanted to honor that. Most people who work in the wedding catering industry will bend over backward to ensure the bride and groom have everything their hearts desire. You want a carnival-themed wedding? We’ll grab our red suspenders and popcorn machine. You want only yellow food? We’ll sort the M&Ms! And if you want the entire staff to break out mid-reception into a seemingly impromptu rendition of the “Macarena”? We’ll be practicing in the back, where no one can see us.
Ultimately, I loved every second I spent catering weddings. It is a privilege and an honor to work behind the scenes, ensuring that every little detail goes off without a hitch while you and your loved one get hitched. The chaos is part of the charm, and preventing it from reaching the wedding party almost becomes a game of sorts.
You cover for the bridesmaid and groomsman that you saw disappearing into the woods 15 minutes ago, push aside high-heels discarded by dancing guests from the walkway so no one trips, and you do it all with exuberance because, ultimately, this day isn’t about you at all. It’s about making sure everyone is enjoying the wedding and, of course, the food.
Fork Full of Earth Organic Catering strives to create flavorful memories with California’s wild abundance of ingredients. They bring the best the Earth has to offer to Bay Area tables by supporting local farms, preparing with thoughtfulness, and staying committed to preservation and sustainability. And, most importantly, they’ve been in business long enough to know to expect the unexpected pool.