Cater Your Own Wedding… With A Cocktail Party

Photo of woman at a cocktail party wedding with a bucket of sodas

If you want to cater your own wedding with a cocktail party, learn from me. I didn’t envision self-catering our cocktail party wedding from the start. It was more of a last-minute impulse, actually. When we visited the place that ended up being our venue (an ice cider orchard), they told us they were set up to serve alcohol, but not food. They were fine with us bringing in a caterer and even suggested a few, but they wanted us to let them know it wouldn’t be an easy job: there was no equipment on the premises, so everything would need to be brought in (including serving tables and trays, burners, possibly ovens), and very little space for them to work.

Realistically, that meant a full sit-down meal was out of the window. We were fine with and even charmed by the idea of a cocktail party, and it seemed well suited for the place, which during the reception would offer a tasting of all their products. They were really passionate and enthusiastic about their cider, and had already come with a number of perfect food pairings and recipe ideas. So the next logical step was to serve different platters or finger foods and hors d’oeuvres that went along with our tasting, both to complement the cider and to keep things simple logistically, given their limitations.

During the ride back home, I called my mom: “Do you think we could handle this ourselves?” She hesitated for a second, probably thinking “you and your crazy ideas”… All through our planning process, I could sense that my doing-things-differently was always taking her aback for a second, but then she always accepted it and started thinking that it made sense. This was no different. “Of course we can. We’ve done it before!”

My mom is an amazing cook, and a great entertainer. We only had 40 guests, or just a few more than the ones she brilliantly fed for our baby shower two years prior. Of course self-catering a wedding seems daunting and big, but depending on the context it need not be. That’s what it is, an event, a party! It’s amazing all the possibilities opening up to you with just a little of can-do attitude from a (skilled) loved one.

I believe the preparation steps were key. Weeks before, whenever my office was ordering in from a caterer, I salvaged the trays, platters and plastic covers afterward and brought them home. I looked at a few catering websites, just to get inspired on what was usually served during traditional cocktail parties, and how they presented it. I also thought about things that could be prepared in advance, didn’t need heating, and traveled easily. Two days before the wedding, my mom, fiance and I sat down and drafted a menu based on the food pairings, then made a list of what we needed and where we needed to go (the Asian grocery store -porcelain spoons were 2 for a $1, and now I have tons so you can all come have soup at my house!-, the farmer’s market, our corner supermarket, even Costco, since we had a $175 rebate we had saved for the occasion). I also hired a teenage girl to come set things up, pass the food around and clean up, which might have been the greatest idea of all.

The day before my mom and I spent the whole day preparing everything. This was a big part of the experience for me, this bonding together in the kitchen, chatting, feeling the buildup of excitement. If anything, it reduced my stress, and gave me a great feeling of accomplishment. As a family of people who love food and try to make it really special for every occasion shared together, it did not seem like such a great stretch to greet our guests with what we had made ourselves.

In the end, we served the following:

  • Sushi (which we picked already made the morning of)
  • Modern crudites (purple carrots, black heirloom cherry tomatoes, orange cauliflower, etc.) with curry dip
  • Fine cheeses with grapes, fresh figs, miniature pears and various nuts
  • Pastas with capicollo and salami, along with ciabatta and baguette.
  • Foie gras with onion confit
  • Duck confit and herbed soft cheese on garlic croutons
  • Quail eggs and caviar
  • Shrimp on puff pastry
  • Tuna tartare in Asian porcelain spoons
  • Greek salad in small Chinese takeout boxes
  • Fresh mozzarella/tomato/melon skewers
  • Smoked salmon with dill cream cheese
  • Black Forest ham and pesto wrap bites
  • Prosciutto, lettuce, blue cheese, dates and toasted pecans roll-ups
  • Smoked salmon mousse in fried mini tortilla cups.

And for dessert, we had really cute and delicious mini-cupcakes from a local bakery:

We didn’t make everything from scratch, come to think of it a big part of it was assembling, more than it was elaborate cooking. But we did try to put an emphasis on presentation, to make it more festive, to offer a good variety so everyone would be pleased, and to provide foods that were a little out of the ordinary.

The total cost for food was about $550, including sushi and cupcakes, which seemed like an incredible value to us. So even though our primary goal was to have as little vendors to rely on as possible, it was also quite a money-saver compared to the same food prepared professionally. Our only mistake is that we didn’t really assess the quantities well, ended up with way too much food and should have probably purchased less.

Intro photo by Jesse Holland Photography.

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