James Callahan Illustration
I work in corporate law offices, plantations and old train stations. I rub elbows with famous people on a regular basis. You know that back room that you've always been curious about? I have access. But I'm no James Bond. I'm a caterer.
I've worked events for a quite a number of prominent Virginia politicians, including Gov. Bob McDonnell, former Gov. Tim Kaine, former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and Sen. Mark Warner, who, by the way, drinks an obscene amount of iced tea.
But there's one event that's tougher than the rest, one logistical nightmare that trumps all others: weddings.
Every detail has to be carefully planned in order to avoid disaster. Try silently cooking and setting up a dinner for hundreds while the bride and groom take their vows mere yards away. Try keeping straight the vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free dishes at a 300-person plated dinner.
Even something as seemingly simple as cutting the cake is a monumental chore. We can't do any prep work, because we have to wait for the newlyweds to accomplish their first joint task, i.e., feeding each other cake. Then, in a matter of minutes, we have to cut hundreds of pieces of a cake atop a wobbly, narrow table and distribute them on flimsy plastic plates. It's the part that we caterers hate the most.
But I digress. The reason I'm writing this essay is to impart whatever wisdom I've gathered from working dozens of weddings.
I'll never forget the wedding where the No BS! Brass Band chugged out of a back room, blaring sweet 13-piece goodness. I'll also never forget the time the wedding procession entered to bagpipe music, the groom and his groomsmen clad in kilts.
These choices are much more interesting than the normal rotation of wedding standards. Caterers have come to detest "Brown Eyed Girl," "Pachelbel's Canon in D," "Butterfly Kisses," and Kool & the Gang's "Celebration." We've even come up with our own crude version of Eric Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight," which we sing under our breath as couples slow-dance in the next room.
I'm not saying engaged couples should attempt the next Lady Gaga video during their grand entrance. What I am saying is this: Make your wedding a personal, fun and relaxed affair. Weddings are one of the most traditional events we still have in these modern times, and social customs are important, but a balance of convention and surprise can still be achieved.
Second or third marriages tend to be more fun. Everyone is relaxed and focused on having a good time. Those are the receptions where even the catering staff gets dragged out onto the dance floor — pretty funny considering how caterers can look like a gnarly pirate crew (chef's coats do wonders for sleeve tattoos).
The most memorable wedding I ever catered was at a winery a few years ago. The groom and his family were the first to arrive. To say they had red on their neck would be an understatement. The groom, still in his tux, was sporting a John Deere trucker cap that he may or may not have worn at the altar.
Then the bride's family started to show up. They seemed to be of Arab descent. The DJ alternated between Hank Williams Jr. numbers and exotic line-dancing music. Everyone boogied until the winery shut down for the evening.
Sometimes a slice of the unexpected is just what a wedding needs. And for Pete's sake, lay off the Van Morrison.