Ask the Experts: Jill Heltman of Village Pantry Catering

Smoked salmon on toast points with shallot cream

Photograph by Kortnee Kate Photography

Planning a menu for any crowd can be daunting, whether it’s a four-course meal for your wedding reception or a cocktail hour with hors d’oeuvres. No one knows this better than Jill Heltman of Village Pantry Catering, who grew up helping out with the family catering business—Village Pantry was founded by her parents in 1978—and has managed more than her fair share of large-scale events. We asked Heltman to share some wedding fare dos and don’ts:

CW: What’s the best way to do something quirky but low-key, like a taco bar?
Offer multiple stations: such as a taco bar, chicken and waffles bar, and a pasta bar, so guests have options if they’re not big taco fans. And don’t offer a full Mexican menu. Believe it or not, there are some people who do not care for Mexican cuisine. If Mexican food is meaningful to you as a couple, because that’s your favorite date meal or something, consider offering the Mexican dishes for the rehearsal dinner or the late-night snack option (or as part of multiple-station buffets).

CW: Is there a good way to offer global cuisine like Thai or Indian while still accommodating all of the guests?
Station buffets are the best way to offer a wide variety of foods for guests to try,” says Heltman. “Not everyone is going to enjoy a Thai or Indian meal, so it’s better to have other options.” For a wedding of two cultures—say, American and Indian—offer passed hors d’oeuvres (everyone loves samosas!), as well as a traditional cheese and fruit display for cocktail hour. Don’t serve a full Indian buffet, as some guests may not try it at all. Offer buffet options for both cultures and encourage guests to eat from both.

CW: How important is it to be aware of potential food allergies?
Include a small note on the invite requesting guests to let you know of any food allergies. And have your caterer label all the menu items so guests know if there are any nuts, dairy, etc. in what they’re eating. Don’t assume there are no allergies on your guest list of 300. But don’t try to accommodate every single allergy and restriction, either. It’s completely fine to accommodate with special plates when you can, and include information about ingredients when you can’t.

CW: For couples on a budget, what is the best way to provide vegetarian/vegan options without revamping the whole menu?
JH: Most catering menus include two entrees for a buffet. There are a lot of vegetarian/vegan entrees that can please even meat eaters. One of our more popular vegetarian entrees is ​quinoa with black beans, roasted sweet potatoes & kale. We also stock a vegan sausage that can be used in a pasta dish—no one even has to know it’s meat-free!    ​

CW: What about offering alcohol? How many options should guests have?
JH: Offer wine & beer. If you cannot afford a full open bar, consider having one or two signature drinks. ​Offer a craft beer, along with the standard domestic light beer. Cash bar on liquor is fine, if you host beer & wine.You don’t need to offer 10 different kinds of beer and wine. There is such a thing as too many choices. It can be challenging to chill that many varieties of beer, and oftentimes, the host buys only a small amount of each kind and can’t predict which one is going to be the most popular.

CW: Sit-down versus buffet style?
For buffet, the pros are guests can eat as much as they want, and there are lower costs because you don’t have to hire servers. On the other hand, a sit-down meal is more formal and elegant, guests are served in a timely manner, and guests are generally all seated at the same time, making it a smooth transition for toasts, first dances, etc.

CW: Is it ok to bring a custom menu to a caterer?
Ask a caterer if they can customize or make a special family recipe. Consider ​reserving some of your favorite dishes or more intricate meals for the rehearsal dinner. Don’t discount a caterer’s expertise for what works and what doesn’t; It likely is not feasible to serve 20 of your favorite foods to 200 guests during a four-hour reception. Don’t feel like you have to feed your guests hors d’oeuvres, a full dinner AND a late-night snack – sometimes it’s just too much food in a short span of time!

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