How do you keep your food at a high quality when you are making 100+ plates at a time?
You have to have the right equipment – like we have plate towers that you can do 100 plates in the fraction of a second and you don't need space for it. And you need the right people to do it.
Do you only caterer formal events?
No, we cater informal as well. We do food service for 10 people to 5,000 without any problem.We cater to all the hotels in the DC metro area. We're exclusive in some of them like the Hay-Adams, the St. Regis, the Marriott Wardman Park, and the Capital Hilton.
When brides have their first consultation with you, what are they most concerned with? What's most important to them?
Most important to them what I've felt for the past so many years is that they want to feel comfortable with their caterer. They want to work with someone who they feel at ease with their knowledge and experience. As well as someone who can give them ideas and advice and work out menus that they have not seen before because that's the way we do it at Dahan's. We have set menus but we like the bride to be involved in the food that they're going to be serving. We did a Holocaust survivor reunion at the White House. The First Lady was concerned about the food that was being served – she had specific requests like copperhead salmon that's only in season about two months a year and hazelnut parfait, which is an old dessert – it's probably one of the first things I learned when I was at school. We have some brides who come in like that with specific ideas and requests in their head.
Hi David! I'm planning a spring 2010 wedding. I have a lot of time to plan! I'd like to know what you think the trends might be then – what kinds of things are coming? Will small plates and other things that are "in" now still be in?
Do you have a Number 8 ball? If I knew that I would own half of DC now. I think that small plates are here for a while longer, tapas definitely are too. Cocktail and desserts I see much more happening in the last year than formal sit-down three-course meals. People will have a huge cocktail hour and dance and then have drinks and then go back again for a beautiful dessert versus going back for a traditional meal. It's starting now, I think that's going to be trendy then. I think the food industry is duplicating what the wine industry has done. Fifteen years ago, you would only have one wine at a wedding. But now people are demanding that they have great wines and more than one variety. Aged beef and Kobe beef is something that people are asking much more for than before so I think that will stay a trend perhaps until following 2010.
My fiance and I come from two different ethnic backgrounds. How would you suggest we incorporate our ethnicities into the wedding food? Thanks David!
You can do one plate with two different items on it. One from each background. Try to incorporate each background into that one plate. If somebody is from France and he likes steak au poivre. And someone else is from Cuba who likes beef empanadas. Then we will do a dual plate that will have both items on it and perhaps in this particular example, we will use the empanada as the starch on this plate – and perhaps remove the beef from the empanada and fill it with vegetables. You can do specific Cuban vegetables like jicama or plantain. That will be the starch and then we put in the complement, which would be the steak au poivre. So each person has something from their country.
Hi David, I was just wondering, what kind of food was served at your wedding? Were you happy with it? If you were to do it again, would you change anything?
34 years ago, wow! That's a funny question. I don't remember to be honest with you. I wasn't in the food service then – I was a young groom and I wasn't paying attention to the food at all. If I were to do it again, I personally would have what I did for my 50th birthday. I did something by mistake, which was three years ago. I did small plates. If I were to have a wedding now, I would do small plates that create conversation. With small plates people are not sitting down, they're up and having conversation. And that's what makes a successful party – people interacting and dancing and having fun. Weddings are supposed to be a time of celebration.
I'm planning a wedding and it all seems to be about good budgeting! Can you tell me how much a couple should expect to spend on food – what percentage of the total wedding budget?
Fifty to 55 percent on the food is very safe. You could save money on the liquor by not using name brands. Or if you want to save money, you use chicken instead of using duck or prime rib. Using cotton linens versus damask – you save money as well. Those are all in the category of food.
Some weddings I've been to have been buffet – others are sit down. Do you prefer one or the other? Which flows better? Which is better for the budget? Thanks David!
Better for the budget is sit-down dinner. The reason? You have control over the food costs because you know how many people you have and each person will only have one plate. Versus buffet where you have usually 10 to 12 items on it at any given wedding and you have to have enough of every item at all times. There is no way that a caterer knows which of the items that people are going to eat more than the other. Technically you don't save money with a buffet because we have to bring more than usual for us to be able to have all the 12 items all the time until the buffet is closed. And there's nothing worse than going to a buffet toward the end and seeing all the plates almost empty. It looks, wow.
For budgeting purposes and the flow of an event, sit-down is more organized. People are sitting down, they're going to get their plate right away, and they're going to eat. If you don't want to have lines, you choose a sit-down. We try to minimize the lines as much as possible, but there will always be a little bit of a line at the buffet. But buffet has an advantage of course. You give people the choice of having a bigger variety of food than sit-down and they can eat at their own leisure. They don't have to be served immediately and eat with everyone else. If you don't mind a little bit of a line, buffet's a good alternative as well.
Is catering with locally grown food a big thing these days? Do you offer a local menu or how do you incorporate local food?
Yes, it's a great thing. We do it at smaller parties because of the uncertainty of the quantity of locally grown food. We try to use as much organic as possible from our produce purveyors. I see much more organic at decent prices lately. Catering versus restaurant – a restaurant can change his menu whenever he wants. When you have a set menu for catering and the tastings have been done two months ago, it's very hard to change the menu the day of. That's the problem of locally grown – everything is not always available. So if the client is open-minded and we can substitute something else on the day of, then we have no problems. That goes for everything, not just the produce. For fish, for chicken, for meats.
Hi David! Is Dahan Caterers exclusively kosher? Or do you offer kosher along with non-kosher?
We're exclusively kosher. We're not allowed to do both. The Rabbinical Council of DC does not allow both to be done. One or the other. I started doing kosher 11 years ago. Before that, when I was a chef in San Francisco I did all non-kosher.
What's the farthest you've ever gone for catering? Do you do destination weddings?
The farthest we went was to Ohio. We have done many weddings in Ohio. We've also gone to North Carolina and West Virginia.
What's the most unique or craziest thing a couple has ever requested?
One couple wanted one bottle of vodka on each table for the guests. And they drank it. They were all from Russia. Some tables, we had to add more bottles. What other crazy things? People who want to have kosher but they want to start with cheese and finish with beef. Which we cannot do – that's illegal.
I know from my own cooking that food can always go wrong and a cake can always get smashed. What's your worst wedding disaster story?
I can write three books on that one. Number one, about two years ago we were in Baltimore Harbor, a Hassidic Jewish wedding, and they were dancing. And one of the guests fell on the cake and smashed that thing. I will never forget that scene. We called the commissary and we had the pastry chef struggle with what he had in the freezer and make as close of a cake that takes three days to make in two hours. Another story. The cake is beautiful, being driven to the site on a hot day, and the refrigeration in the truck breaks down. It just melted. When I opened the doors I cried. The biggest disaster we had was on Feb. 16, 2006 – it was the biggest snowstorm in Washington. We had a party at the Women's Museum and we were there but the linen company could not make it. So we had no linens for the wedding. But we always make up for it. This is the beauty of experience because you always have in the back of your mind that something could go wrong.
If you had an unlimited budget for a wedding, what would it look like? How about a small budget – say 10,000 for the whole wedding – what would the catering be like for that?
For the large budget I would rent perhaps a small island in Aruba and fly all my guests on Virgin Atlantic and have about three or four bands and lots of booze. It price was no issue, I would definitely fly in foie gras from my hometown of Strasbourg, France. And homemade sausage as well. I would do Kobe beef. And great wines. I love pinot gris. And that's it.
You can have a nice wedding for 10,000. You can have North African fare. They don't use extremely expensive cuts of meats. You can use inexpensive vegetables but the fragrance and the exotic spices make up for the less expensive cuts of meats. We have done this type of wedding many times. Contrary to the myth that we are expensive, we work with all budgets.
My fiance and I are very eco-conscious. What tips do you have that could help us make our wedding green when it comes to the food? Thanks!
That's an easy part. We should use organic food definitely. Also corn-fed beef, free-range chicken, those things are eco-friendly. But it does come with a price, especially with kosher. The production is not as big for kosher. You go to Balducci's or Whole Foods and you can find free-range chicken. If you go to a kosher supermarket, it's harder to find. There was a recent wedding we did where we used bamboo plates and chopsticks.
Hi….doing our reception at the Torpedo Factory in Old Town, Alexandria – completely blank canvas with tons of room for creativity….with that I wanted to do something a bit different – tapas, heavy appetizers, different cultural influences, while the fiance wants the typical sit down meal….where can we meet in the middle?
Stations. The sit-down won't be 100 percent because people have to go up and get their food. But with stations you can choose different types of foods – American station, French station, Chinese, North African, Mexican. You can have the tapas at the Spanish station.
You have to have one or the other. For her, you have the heavy appetizers and tapas. But for him, the guests get their food and go back to the table and sit down. You could set up the tables as traditional sit-down, ie with everything like plates, glasses, flatware. As opposed to buffet where the tables are empty. There's no way to have it both ways but you can take elements from each.
That's all the time David has for us this week. Check back next Thursday for a new wedding chat!