A New Kind of Catering
Marrying style with substance on the wedding table
Frauka Baylor of Blue Trout Catering slipped through the crowd with purpose. She was busily refilling the hors d'oeuvres tray -- a classy arrangement of sweetish carrot bread layered with thick slices of pistachio-and-pear-studded duck pté. Next to that stood a heaping plate of miniature empanadas stuffed with spicy black beans.
Later that evening, she presided over the dinner-buffet line, which featured roast pork tenderloin bathed in sour cherries, pear-and-gorgonzola salad with pecans, buttery green beans, and roast butternut squash, cubed and caramelized to a nutty brown. Gooey corn pudding and light-as-air yeast rolls accessorized the buffet.
The meal that night was, according to Baylor, fairly typical for the weddings she caters -- nothing too daring or showy. Like so many weddings, the couple wanted to make sure that there was something for everyone to eat at their reception. But this food was far superior to the withered crudités, the gelatinous pasta bars, and limp baked salmon I remembered suffering through at other weddings.
There was once a time when a common observation about wedding cuisine went something like this: "The food was pretty good ... for wedding food." The implication, of course, being that wedding food was poor in general. Remember the sausage wraps, the bruised fruit trays, or the overcooked roast beef? However, wedding fare has evolved radically in recent decades. It might have something to do with America's mounting obsession with food. As people become increasingly interested in both cuisine and foodways, they have begun to expect quality chow at catered events. Caterers, in turn, have grown savvy about how to satisfy them. As any caterer will tell you, depending on the size of the party, style of service, or timing, there are limitations to the types of foods a catered event can do well. However, that does not mean that the food has to be bad or bland or ordinary. Taking their cue from top restaurateurs and caterers in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, Austin caterers have begun developing menus that are stylish, tasteful, and yet doable. They are going with foods that reflect the ethnic diversity of the Austin community and the increasing awareness people have about what they choose to eat.
The Barr Mansion sits on seven acres of what used to be a turn-of-the-century cotton plantation. Its fanciful Queen Anne-style architecture scrolls and swirls, forming curved balconies and quaintly trimmed openings. Tamed splashes of color in a landscape reminiscent of a Merchant-Ivory film set are displayed outside of its gardens. The Barr Mansion is one of a handful of beautiful old homes in Austin that can be rented for weddings and events. But the Barr Mansion has more to recommend it than just lovely facilities. Owners Mark and Melanie McAfee have worked hard to ensure that their on-site kitchen offers top-notch food to their wedding guests, as well. Their new chef, Stephen Blaisedell, formerly of Zoot and Granite Cafe, is no stranger to fine cuisine. And their on-site baker, Alain Braux, a French-born and -trained pastry chef, makes some of the most elegant cakes around.
Things have changed a bit since I worked as the chef there almost 10 years ago. For one thing, they now have a new barn made of hand-hewn timber and English thatch. It was imported in Lincoln Log-like pieces from upstate New York and rebuilt on-site by Mennonites. The Barr Mansion is busier now, and most importantly, it no longer doubles as a home, as it once did. But what hasn't changed is Melanie McAfee's commitment to innovative cuisine made from local, organic ingredients. If anything, her commitment to them has deepened as the market for specialty items has expanded. When developing the Barr Mansion menus, she tries to select foods that fit the season and emphasizes lighter, natural preparations over the heavy, fat-laden foods that typify many wedding receptions. Chef Blaisedell's own attitude toward cooking harmonizes with McAfee's food philosophy. This year, the Barr Mansion is only offering beef from Harrell Farms -- a local ranch that organically raises Wagyu (Kobe beef belongs to this breed) and Angus hybrids. Blaisedell prepared a sample for me -- a grilled flank steak served over coconut and lime-infused soba noodles -- and I have been raving about it ever since. Tender and savory, it tasted almost nutty, and just gamy enough to give it an extraordinary flavor. It was simply the best beef I have ever eaten.
The Barr Mansion is also working hard to buy only free-range organic chickens and organic seasonal produce. Their summer menu, for instance, featured salads made from locally grown cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers; smoked tomato soup; and vegetarian croquettes. Other dishes included shredded five-spice chicken glazed with spicy orange-chili sauce; Cuban-style pork and tangy pickle on crostini; carrot soup with miso and ginger; lemon potato latkes with ginger and avocado crême; and orange, pistachio, and black-olive biscotti. Both McAfee and Blaisedell try to stress vegetarian foods over meats and natural meats over the hormone-fed, mass-produced variety most of us have grown used to eating.
Wedding reception venues like the Barr Mansion are not alone in wanting to emphasize offbeat ethnic flavors or vegetarian options at weddings. Caterers like Frauka Baylor, who revel in exploring international flavors, have gradually seen a demand for creative cuisine rise. Other caterers, such as 2 Dine 4, have become adept at theme parties (they have done several Medieval weddings) or customized party décor with dramatic lighting, artisan-created wrought-iron and glass accessories, or quirky found objects. The foods they offer reflect the catering team's eclectic sensibilities.
Chef Ricky Olmedo of 2 Dine 4 draws his culinary inspiration chiefly from the clean, crisp flavors of the Mediterranean, though he admits to having a small penchant for the exotic flavors of Asia. His meals are simple yet elegant. Asparagus-and-mushroom risotto fritters, shrimp-and-roasted-pepper pizza with goat cheese, or little puff pastries filled with prosciutto, port-infused figs, and Stilton stand out. Seared rare tuna on wonton chips with tangy cilantro pesto and wasabi aioli is one of 2 Dine 4's more popular items and a delicious bite at that.
When I asked about what kind of parties the 2 Dine 4 staff like to do the most, they uniformly responded that their favorite event last year was a vegetarian wedding. In it, the guests were served corn cakes with fermented black-bean sauce, pumpkin-and-walnut pté, steamed vegetable dumplings, and a grilled portobello mushroom muffaletta among other things. In fact, the wedding planners at 2 Dine 4 encourage the people they work with to try new things, to make their receptions as individual as possible. The 2 Dine 4 kitchen will even re-create family recipes that can make special events such as weddings particularly meaningful.
The same spirit of originality can be applied to wedding cakes. These monolithic icons of the marriage ritual tend to be surprisingly unchanging. Brides get white, grooms get chocolate, and the icing patterns come in only three or four designs. However, there are options for people who might want something a little different. One company in Austin, Piece of Cake, offers brides and grooms a chance to participate in the creation of their wedding cakes. The idea behind this relatively new business is original, yet surprisingly simple. They contend that wedding cakes don't have to reproduce the same old basket weave pattern or lily of the valley over and over. Instead, cakes can be unique and expressive. The designers at Piece of Cake sit down with couples in advance. They get to know them and their tastes in order to create a cake individually tailored to each personality. They consider everything: flavor, icing, color, and most importantly, design. Susana Fletcher, the company's lead decorator, then develops a conceptual drawing. She builds the cake from there, refining the sketch and translating the idea into three-dimensional edible art.
The final cakes are whimsical and fun, without being gaudy. For the recent Bridal Extravaganza, Fletcher created a three-tiered, pink polka dot cake that looked like something straight out of the pages of a Seventies nightclub. She made a square, modish, garden-party cake with a dainty lawn of green trim and yellow flowers. Upcoming weddings will feature an Xbox cake, a Hawaiian-themed cake with shells and flowers on it, and a pig cake for a groom who happens to be a pig raiser.
But there's more to Piece of Cake than kitschy themes. Fletcher's cakes are also sophisticated and stylish. With no formal training as a baker or decorator, her ideas come from the pages of design and fashion books rather than bridal magazines and hospitality guides. She looks at what's in fashion and then translates that into a cake. The results are impressive: an Orient-inspired cake in which a square red-iced cake is sandwiched by two white round cakes. The icing is flat; the only decorations are the Japanese characters on the side. It is both bold and simple, like the Japanese flag itself.
The real treat for most of Fletcher's clients, though, is the final cake sketch, which she frames and gives to the bride and groom as a wedding present. It's a permanent, personal reminder of the wedding.
Of course, there are literally hundreds of options for food if you are planning a wedding in Austin. Barr Mansion, Blue Trout Catering, 2 Dine 4 Catering, and Piece of Cake represent just a few of them. The best thing to do if you want great food at your wedding is to request a tasting in advance and then spend time talking to your caterers in order to communicate exactly what you want. Many caterers host seasonal or monthly tastings for their prospective clients. For those willing to experiment a little, wedding food doesn't have to be the same old bland fare it used to be.
Blue Trout CateringContact: Frauka Baylor,
Barr MansionContact: Mark McAfee,
2 Dine 4 CateringContact: Stephen Shallcross, Ashley Odom, or Patricia Cater,
Piece of CakeContact: Jessica Sjölseth or Susana Fletcher,