Wedding Catering Chat with Bunny Dwin, Thursday, March 6, at 11 AM

About 25 years ago, Bunny Dwin seized her love of cooking and turned it into a career: her own catering business, which she started from her home in Baltimore. Bunny has taken cooking classes all over the world, and has visited more than 40 countries to sample different foods. She quickly moved from her house to a professional kitchen, and, in 2000, started Provisions, a large catering company based in Silver Spring. She now oversees parties with as few as eight guests and as many as 500.

Thanks for all of your questions. Please check out our Web site at, and please feel free to contact us if you have any other questions or require additional information. Caterers do many, many events in a year, but something like a wedding is really so special. We know weddings are something you'll remember for the rest of your life, and we work hard to get involved so you will have great memories of the food you served as well as the music, decorations, and the whole ambiance of the evening.  —Bunny Dwin

Washington, DC
My fiance's family and mine come from different ethnic backgrounds and have widely differing tastes in food (think Midwest steak fans versus Indian fish and curry fans). We're thinking a buffet might be the best way to accommodate both styles and give each side a chance to experience something new. Is it odd to include two (or more) distinct cuisines in a buffet? Will caters be able to do both well? Also, I've heard buffets are actually more expensive, and we're obviously watching our money. What would you recommend?
It is true that with a buffet you serve a lot more food than you do at a seated dinner, but sometimes you need more staff at a seated dinner, so it's sort of a wash. It really depends. I think you should do both of the cultures, people like diversity. One thing you could do, if you don't want to do it at the buffet, is to offer ethnic foods as hor doeuvres. Or if you put ethnic foods at the buffet, you could do a menu board that explains some of the foods. People like to sample and it's fun to educate people's palates. Most caterers should be able to do both types of food well. You can always give one of your recipes to the caterer and then arrange a taste test to make sure the end product is what you're expecting.
Takes the cupcake
I went to a wedding that had tiered platters of cupcakes and now am thinking of doing it for my own. But my mom thinks it's a dumb idea and too untraditional. What are some reasons I can use to convince her it's not that bad an idea?
First of all the ceremony is the wedding, and anything after that is a celebration. What you want to do is make your celebration memorable, and there are no hard-and-fast rules. Cupcakes are very popular right now, but if you do it you can always have a cake on top to cut. A cupcake wedding cake is something that people will remember for many, many years. Usually when you cut the wedding cake it signals the end of the event, so people don't want to cut it too early. That means that often the wedding cake is not eaten because people are busy dancing, and many  have maybe even left, and people aren't interested in a heavy dessert. With cupcakes, people can eat them standing up, eat them on the dance floor, they don't have to wait to be served. And if you do the top tier with the wedding cake you can do the traditional cutting of the cake.
Washington, DC
Is it a faux pas these days not to include a vegetarian menu?
I think that it is important, if you're doing a buffet, to have at least one vegetarian option or enough side dishes that someone could make a meal. We find that when we do seated dinners and one entree is selected, if people don't want that entree, more and more people opt for vegetarian. If you know ahead of time that you are going to have a certain number of vegetarians, the caterer can plan to have the right number of vegetarian meals. I find that when we have a vegetarian option people see it and then they often want it, too. So we always plan to have a few more vegetarian meals on hand that have been ordered. And even when people don't request any vegetarians, we always have something we can put together at the last minute in case there is somebody with a vegetarian request. 
Washington DC
How willing are caterers to accommodate eco-conscious brides and grooms?
I think most caterer are willing to accomodate eco-conscious brides and grooms. Politically it is the correct thing to do, and with the abundance of organic foods that are available, it's not a problem. It can sometimes be more expensive because those ingredients are more expensive. 
Washington, DC
My fiance and I are having a sit down dinner with food stations. Our venue says they will customize the menu and do anything we want, but the options the presented us with for stations are boring – a pasta station and a carving station. What interesting food stations can you recommend that we can ask for?
You could have a potato station or a risotto station. With the potato station, you could do mashed sweet potatoes or mashed Yukon gold potatoes with toppings, and that can be served in martini glasses. You can have twice-stuffed potatoes with cheese and bacon and chives. You can have mini potato pancakes, either sweet or regular, served with toppings like sour cream, chives, cinnamon sugar, smoked salmon. If you did a risotto station, you can serve the risotto in a margarita or martini glass and people could add different toppings like spinach, asparagus, corn, sauteed mushrooms. You could do an Asian station, where you could have dumplings and shu mai and spring rolls, and sushi, pad thai noodles, and maybe some kind of a steamed fish or a beef teriyaki or a sesame chicken. Another station you could have is a Mexican station where you prepare guacamole to order in a molcajete. You could have enchiladas like chicken or shrimp or beef enchiladas, which could be served with corn pudding or sweet potato fries and a Southwest salad. You could do a station called "Everyone's a Kid" where you have the mini hot dogs, the mini hamburgers, the fried macaroni-and-cheese balls, mini Reubens, Caesar salad in little herbed bread shells, you could do Lilliputian BLTs. Another station would be a tapas station, where you have a variety of small plates, including a seafood or vegetable paella plus gazpacho served in shotglasses. For a more formal station, you could have a grill station where you have grilled vegetables and some interesting grilled fish or seafood, grilled beef, grilled chicken with interesting sauces.
My fiance and I are on a tight budget. What's the most budget-friendly main course option?
Chicken is probably going to be the most reasonably priced entree. There are some fish like tilapia or salmon that are reasonably priced. For a meat option you could go with a flank steak. There are so many interesting ways that these things can be presented, so the concept of the rubber chicken dinner is really passe. With so many fresh herbs and interesting sauces, there's a lot than you can do with less expensive cuts of fish or beef. With chicken or fish, we sometimes do it encrusted in pistachio nuts and serve it with a saffron sauce. We do salmon that we brush with a soy apricot glaze and serve it over sauteed spinach. We have a rosemary roasted chicken that is very popular. You can do something like a flank steak with a chimichurri sauce. I think also the presentation is extremely important. If it is presented in an artistic way, it can be as exciting as if you were serving a lobster tail.
How far in advance of the wedding should a caterer be booked? How far in advance do you need to give the final head count?
There's really not a definite answer. Some people book a year in advance. If you're getting married in May or June, those are particularly popular months, so as far in advance as possible is recommended. But, caterers can do more than one event in the same day, whereas your photographer or your band cannot. So probably those are the first people you want to book, and then find your caterer. For the head count, we require a minimum guarantee of the number of guests seven days prior to the event. After that date, you can increase the number but you can't decrease it. However, with something like a wedding where we are in frequent contact with the client, they usually have a fair idea a month before the event as far as how many guests to expect, which is nice because it gives us an idea of how many to plan for. Usually, the caterer takes into consideration that there might be a few guests who show up that you're not expecting, but as close of a head count as possible is important in terms of seating, especially. Because we have access to so many resources and vendors, we have actually put together weddings on a week's notice. However, that is only in special cases.
Boston, MA
My wedding is going to be small, because I don't think I could handle anything to large, and my family is picky and full of vegetarians and my fiance's is definitely meat eating. What foods (buffet style) would you suggest to meet their diverse needs?
You can have meat and potatoes, but also something like a portabella lasagna or eggplant stuffed with ratatouille or a vegetable crepe. There are some really beautiful vegetarian dishes that would appeal to even the meat eaters. In addition, if you have lots of side dishes such as salads and vegetables, there should be more than enough. Also some vegetarians eat fish, so you may want to consider a fish option.
Tell us the most unique wedding meal you've created.
Many years ago, prior to the ceremony for about an hour tuxedoed waiters passed Champagne, hor doeuvres such as baby lamb chops, jumbo steamed shrimp, Maryland crab cakes, tenderloin on garlic coins, bellini with caviar. They had violins and classical background music. The groom was present but not the bride. This was his part of the wedding. Following the ceremony, the waiters changed into t-shirts that the bride had designed (she was a graphic artist), guests were given t-shirts to put on, a 16-piece steel band came in, and the food was interesting sandwiches, salads, and other side dishes. The wedding cake was a chocolate mousse cake iced in swirls of chocolate, very non-traditional but delicious. People just danced and ate the whole evening without any formal presentations or things to stop the momentum of the party.
Washington, D.C.
For a wedding that's expecting a lot of child guests, what are some good no-mess appetizers to serve?
Little cocktail franks are great. Something like fried macaroni-and-cheese balls, mini egg rolls, mini grilled cheese sandwiches. They love french fries. Sliders, which are mini hamburgers, are very popular. Mini pizzas, either traditional or white pizza. There are other things that kids like, like mozzarella sticks, but those can get messy.
Laurel, MD
My fiance wants to serve buffalo wings as h'ors doeuvres our wedding. I thought he was joking at first but he really seems serious. I think it's totally gross to imagine his relatives spilling blue cheese and buffalo sauce all over themselves. Especially his brother. That guy makes me nervous. Anyway, are there any compromises you can think of? Basically I am looking for finger food that will satisfy him and his weird relatives but not embarrass me in front of my family.
If you do it as a stationary hor doeuvre, you can actually even serve it in paper cups or with small plates and have the blue cheese in a little container, and some carrot and celery sticks in there too. But you need to have some cocktail tables set up where people can stop to eat it, because you can't have a drink in your hand and also eat buffalo wings. But it actually does make for a nice buffet item. People do like highly recognizable foods. People are into comfort foods, and I would consider buffalo wings comfort food. They're familiar and fun. Or if you want to have a server come around offering the wings with just the blue cheese dip, make sure to have lots of cocktail napkins. Then, it's important to have another server go around and collect the bones.
Vienna, VA
Food is just so expensive, and we're on such a tight budget…would people absolutely freak out if we didn't have a full sit-down meal? What if we did just did cocktails and hors d'oeuvres and some dancing? Is that insane to consider?
The problem with that is it depends on the timing of the wedding. If you have an evening wedding and you're only going to do hor doeuvres, they have to be heavy enough that they would suffice for a meal. If it's going to be a continuous cocktail hor doeuvre buffet, the least expensive way to do it is to have stationary buffet rather than servers walking around, because hiring more staff is costly. Also with a stand-up cocktail reception, the rule of thumb is seating for a third of the guests, so you don't have to have seating for anyone. You could do a combination of high and low cocktail tables. Not having seating for everyone cuts down on rental costs. Also, since you're not setting tables you don't need as much china and silverware and glassware, and at the cocktail buffet usually a cocktail or luncheon size plate and fork is appropriate, and you could use just pretty paper napkins as opposed to linen napkins, The food could still be interesting and varied. For example, you could have mini twice-stuffed potatoes, some sort of a carved meat, things like guacamole salad in corn cups, a hot pasta, like an interesting ravioli. Just make sure it's enough to fill up your guests. For dessert, serve wedding cake with maybe some strawberries or something that gives people another option. 
Washington, DC
I have two questions out of curiosity: How far in advance do you plan for a wedding and what is the biggest catering mishap you experienced?
I think my biggest catering mishap happened at a wedding on the Eastern shore. The ceremony and reception took place in a huge tent, and almost without any warning a tremendous storm came up. Part of the tent collapsed. People had to rush to the B&B on the property and crowd in there. We had to put down planks of wood so that when the storm passed guests could come back because the mud was so deep. The bride's gown was completely covered in mud. However, once people came back into the tent we made some adjustments in terms of the seating, and the tent people partially fixed the tent, and the music was able to go on, although the band had to improvise because they couldn't plug in all of their equipment. The food was served later than expected but everything held up and people danced and in the end they had a terrific time. And of course, it's a wedding that no one will ever forget. Caterers can always improvise.
Washington, DC
I would like to have my wedding reception at a venue that requires an off-site caterer (chosen from a pre-approved list), but I'd like to get a better sense of the catering costs before committing to my venue. It seems like hotels typically add service charge and tax on top of their per person food estimate. Do per-person catering costs typically include service charges as well as the linens and china, or is it food only? Also, how far in advance should the caterer be booked? My wedding will not be until summer 2009. Thanks!
Fifty percent of your cost is going to go towards food, rentals (tables, chairs, linens, china, silver, glassware, etc.), staff, and bar beverages. The other fifty percent is for invitations, flowers, music, rental of the facility, favors, photography. If you drew a line down the middle, they should be equal in cost. With an outside vendor, many caterers allow the client to purchase their own alcohol, which is a tremendous savings. The caterer serves these beverages, and that can save thousands of dollars because the markup is considerably higher in a hotel. However, the hotel does have tables, chairs, and linens all there, so there are times when it can be more expensive to use a caterer who has to bring it all in. At Provisions we charge a price per person for the food, a price for the staff, and a price for the rentals like linens and china and tables and chairs if needed. Our typical wedding in terms of staff time is anywhere from 8 to 9 hours per staff person. Let's say a wedding that requires 15 staff people, that could be close to a $5,000 cost for staff, and that's not including food or rentals, which can be anywhere from $2,000 to $7,000. If your wedding is going to be in summer 2009, you should book now.
Glover Park
My fiance and I are planning a small destination wedding for about 30 guests. We'd like to do an hors d'oeuvres only reception (which will go from 6:30pm to 9:30pm). How many types and how many actual pieces of each type (or per person) should we offer? We'll have an open bar, and the only other food we plan on having will be the wedding cake. Thanks!
Again, you need to provide food that is substantial enough that it would suffice for a meal. I would recommend at least 10 different items. You may want to put something that I call filler food out, like vegetables and dips or cheese, at the bar, but the hor doeuvres being passed should be pretty substantial. You need to figure two or three of each hor doeuvre per person. For foods that you think will be more popular with your guests, definitely do three of those items or even go above the recommended number.