Caterers and wedding professionals share tips for creating a collaborative, personalized affair.

A glance at the menu that Holly and Pablo Chignolli chose for their July 2012 wedding reception is enough to make a person's mouth water.

The couple's dinner included dual entrees: Chicken de Campagne-chicken breasts filled with garlic herbed cheese and shallots, wrapped in prosciutto and napped with a sherry cream-and short ribs grilled and then slow cooked in an Asian marinade and served with julienned carrots, Napa cabbage and braising sauce. The couple helped create their own summer salad with green apples and cranberries.

"We also had a sweet table," Holly says. "We had a small cake and then we had lots of different cupcakes … six different flavors, made by Anita Kline. And we had lots of sweets and candies. My grandmother made her famous cheesecake cupcakes-my husband loves those."

The couple's caterer, Mass Appeal Catering & Events, helped set up the sweets table and prepared a memorable meal served to their guests at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center.

As for why the couple chose Mass Appeal, it was a simple decision for bride Holly. "They had really good prices and I had their food at other weddings and really liked it," she says.

Finding Your Match

As with the Chignollis it's often a positive first-hand experience-or a recommendation from a friend or family member-that leads to repeat business for a caterer.

"That relationship is extremely important," says Kevin Porter, owner of PC Events. "We listen to them and find out what they're looking for."

A good caterer goes out of his or her way to ensure the day is about meeting the couple's wishes. Many caterers willingly work with wedding planners, but caterers often take on that role themselves. Most couples rely on hired caterers or facility managers to guide them through the planning process, though it helps a caterer immensely if the bride and groom do some homework and come to the interview with a list of wants and must-haves.

"What helps is when they think about their vision," says Melissa Johnson, director of catering at Cameron Mitchell Premier Events. "When they think of their reception, what do they see? What do they hear? What do they smell? I'll want to know if you envision an intimate, relaxed day or if you've always dreamed of a lavish affair."

Bleu & Fig co-owners Regina Carmody Prange and Brooke Kinsey agree.

"First and foremost we talk to the couple to see what they envision for the day. That's the first step-focusing in on what they want. A lot of times couples have different ideas on what they want and you have to narrow it down … not necessarily to a specific theme, but at least a vision for the day," Kinsey says.

"Couples look to us and our experience and design capabilities because they want to create a day that's special-and typically because they're interested in our food and design aesthetic. We try to give the bride and groom a sense of confidence that everything will go well."

Making Your Choice

Most couples are aware of the importance of nailing down a reception venue as soon as possible post-engagement. The same goes for catering.

"We recommend booking a caterer 12 to 18 months in advance," Porter says. "The further out you book, you'll get better pricing and availability because when you book, you lock in today's prices."

Couples also need to realize that the prime wedding months-April through October-are also top dates for other events. Caterers have corporate outings, graduations, golf tournaments and festivals that keep them busy starting in the spring. When the calendar pages turn to fall, brides also must compete with folks planning big tailgate parties or, later in the season, holiday events. But as with every aspect of wedding planning, it's all about being organized and reaching out to the right people.

Large catering companies like Cameron Mitchell Premier Events-whose business is split evenly between corporate events and weddings-have the ability to book several events on the same weekend, providing more open slots and more flexibility to take jobs on short notice.

"Our off-premise catering team can still take events a month out," Johnson says. But in busier months, even Cameron Mitchell may need to turn down a client or two. "In May and June (2013), we had to close out off-premise catering on two nights, and that almost never happens. One night, we had 13 events, but three of them were big, 500- or 600-people events with plated dinners and high-end service. The other night, we had 15 events and two of them were huge events."

Carmody Prange and Kinsey say the menu-planning process should begin as soon as possible, too-but there's always room for flexibility.

"The menu conversation should begin immediately, but it's definitely a planning process," says Kinsey. "It all depends on the season, but I'm all for planning as soon as you can-there's really no reason not to. So many things come up that are outside of what we at Bleu & Fig manage, so we want to get all of our details out of the way sooner than later."

Comparing Your Options

Today, your dinner decision doesn't come down to plated vs. buffet. Couples can tailor their dining service to fit the style of reception they're trying to create. Dreaming of a formal, elegant reception? Then a full-service, plated meal is probably the way to go. But if you envision a more casual reception where family and friends enjoy a variety of foods, then action stations might best fit your style.

"There are pros and cons to each dinner service," Porter says.

Butlered hors d'oeuvres: The prices vary depending on whether the food is billed per piece or per person. Only limited seating is required for this style, but it's thoughtful to provide a few tables and chairs for guests who can't stand for long periods of time.

Station buffets and full buffets: With a full buffet, the caterer generally sets up one or two long banquet tables featuring the menu items you've selected and banquet captains will release the guests table by table. With station buffets, one type of food or a related group of foods is served at its own station or table. Options include carving stations, mashed potato bars, made-to-order pasta and salad stations. This set-up encourages guests to mingle.

Station buffets can cost more, as they require more staff, especially if carving stations are involved. The cost can also rise because portion control is harder to maintain with a buffet or station reception than it is with a plated meal. A money-saving option is to have catering employees serve the food from the buffet, in order to help control portions and cost.

Overall, a buffet is much more popular, Porter says, in part because it offers guests more options. But as a caterer, Porter prefers a sit-down dinner.

Sit-down meals: The most traditional option usually features a head table that can be used as a stage for toasts and announcements. Full seating is required, as are enough servers to get the meals to guests as quickly as possible. A plated dinner is elegant and can work practically anywhere.

Family-style meals: These are becoming more popular as couples exercise creativity in planning their receptions. With this service, the facility typically serves the courses in big platters for each table.

"We're seeing an increase in family-style shared platters," Johnson says, adding one word of caution. "I have heard of instances when the food on a platter ran out before it finished a first round of a table for eight or 10 people. Make sure to ask your caterer how frequently they'll replenish the dishes."

Asking the Right Questions

Most caterers suggest a personal interview, followed by or including a private taste-test, in order to select the caterer or company that best meets your needs. With that in mind, here are some key points couples should be aware of when interviewing potential caterers:

Know your budget. Creating and sticking to a financial plan is as crucial as finding somebody who will work within that plan. A smart caterer, Porter says, can adapt the menu to any budget. "We can customize the menu and recipes," he says.

Express what is and isn't a priority for you. Is the food the most important thing, or is it the flowers, the cake or other specialty items? "I get clients who come in and simply want the best food in the world," Porter says. "Other clients come in and they're more interested in the atmosphere and the music and the dancing."

Find out the level of service the caterer provides-how many servers will be used, for instance, and if they're regular staff members or hired temps. The number of servers also depends on the size of the wedding. "Staffing ratios are very, very important, depending on the food service," Johnson says.

Ask about contingency plans-what happens if it rains at an outdoor event, for example-and find out who will be in charge the day of the event.

Talk over the various options regarding how the food will be presented. Johnson, for example, recently catered a big Italian wedding reception for 275 people where the family brought in 350 dozen (or 4,200) cookies. It took pre-planning and two hours the day of the wedding to build the display of cookies.

Most caterers will offer a tasting so couples will know what to expect on the wedding day. "We do private tastings," Porter says. "It allows our clients to be able to select from our menu, or the bride and groom and their families can make the selections together. It's much more beneficial to come with family and taste the food."

Find out whether the food that will be served is fresh, frozen or canned.

Ask whether the caterer is accustomed to working at the facility where you'll host your reception. Some venues require that you use their on-site chefs or a caterer with whom they have an exclusive relationship; other facilities, such as the Columbus Museum of Art and Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, have approved lists of caterers that are familiar with their venues. The caterer has to know how to work with a site's layout-whether it's the complex hallways at the conservatory or a hilly backyard.

Before signing a contract, ask several caterers for proposals, including full price quotes. Each proposal should address the same type of event, with similar menus, staffing, gratuities, service fees and taxes. All of the details will help couples make real apples-to-apples comparisons.

Find out what hours the room or rooms will be available, and how easy-or difficult-it will be to get into the room to set up and decorate. If there is more than one event at a facility, it's also important to ask where and when your rental items can be delivered and how the caterer makes sure that what's yours stays with your party, Johnson says.

Ask about deposit, cancellation and rescheduling policies. Also determine if the contract can be modified as the date nears.

Find out how long the caterer has been in business, and ask for references or about their Better Business Bureau record, Johnson says. Newer caterers might be less expensive; longtime caterers are likely to have covered events in most local venues. Ask how many weddings the company has catered. Some caterers specialize in weddings while others don't.

Understand what is being delivered. Don't be afraid to ask questions and discuss details endlessly until you're certain you know what the caterer is proposing. After gathering information from various caterers, couples can weigh the options and narrow down their choices. Price is only part of the equation. "Look at the overall picture," Porter says. A caterer that will simply drop off the food isn't going to provide the same level of service that a full-service caterer will.

Planning a wedding reception involves defining your priorities. "It's important to research the caterer to find out what they offer," Porter says. "Try their food, taste their food. Compare their presentation and friendliness."

SIDEBAR

Personalizing your menu

Sure, a good caterer can plan your menu and deliver a fine reception, but will that dinner tell your guests anything about you? A great caterer will ask for-and listen to-your ideas.

"We don't want to cater 200 identical wedding receptions each year," says Melissa Johnson, director of catering at Cameron Mitchell Premier Events.

Putting a unique stamp on the meal makes it fun for the guests and for the caterer. Often, couples will come in and ask a caterer to recreate a favorite, Porter says.

"They might say that their brother makes the best macaroni and cheese in the world," says Kevin Porter, owner of PC Events. "We're going to duplicate that for them."

One of Porter's recent clients used their travel experience to inspire a menu for an April reception.

"They travel to the East Coast and to New England. They wanted to invoke that feeling," Porter says. "We did a lobster clambake for 50 to 60 people. We cooked everything on-site. We had corn, chicken, two-pound lobsters. We did the lobster bake in big steamers and it was a lot of fun."

A June wedding reception that Cameron Mitchell Premier Events worked could be described as a "picnic with a twist," Johnson says of the outdoor reception with 200 guests. "[The bride] wanted it upscale yet laid-back and with an intimate feeling."

This "outdoor, rustic-chic" reception featured food served at station tables built from wine barrels topped with distressed wood doors. Instead of chafing dishes, the caterer used bricks to build up around the sternos. The menu also featured an upscale macaroni and cheese and crawfish chowder prepared in big kettles hanging from a wrought-iron tripod.

"We had long metal skewers we used to cook the chicken breasts," Johnson says. "It had a campfire look."

That outdoor wedding was served under a tent, a nod to the couple's appreciation for mother nature.

As for being prepared, Johnson notes that it's important to have a backup plan. One bride insisted that her ceremony and reception were going to take place outside.

"She didn't want to talk about rain, and of course it rained toward the end of her ceremony. The tables were already outside for the meal, and the linens got all wet. Everyone was scrambling," Johnson says. "Trust me, in the long run, it's much better to talk about a backup plan."