Grazing menus, oyster and sashimi stations, dessert canapés and cuisine that travels the globe … it’s wedding food, but not as you know it, and a taste for adventure and sophistication lie behind its evolution.
James Fien, director of hospitality at Royal South Yarra Lawn Tennis Club, says couples these days are increasingly eager to curate bespoke wedding menus rather than sticking to the traditional three-meat and veg.
And it’s something he’s capitalised on at the exclusive riverside club, which was refurbished two years ago and has, for the first time, opened up its function and event spaces to non-members.
“The idea is to very much make food a real talking point, so that guests are still raving about it afterwards,” James says. “You want them to remember that they had canapés they’d never tried before or an amazing gourmet hamburger.”
In short, when it comes to your wedding menu, James says it’s about making the food as much about discovery as it is about taste, so it’s no surprise the following five menu options are among his best-sellers:
Food stations aren’t always a commonplace feature at weddings, but according to James – who works closely with executive chef Peter Villinger to create seasonal menus – they’re a wonderful way to stand out from the crowd.
“They add a little bit of difference, and bring that little bit of colour and movement to the room,” he explains. “You get the smells of nice spices being toasted ready for a pad thai, and there’s a real visual element to it as well. For example, when we put on an oyster, sushi and sashimi station, we set it up so it looks like a seafood market.
There’s bags of oysters, there’s fish, there’s crabs … it really does look authentic. And you get the smells as well, which help to heighten everyone’s senses and whet everyone’s appetites.” It’s all about building excitement in every corner.”
Other courses that work well offered through a presentation station include desserts and cheese.
It’s more common these days for people to have travelled extensively at a young age, opening their eyes to a world of food that’s new and delicious. This smorgasbord of tastes can then be translated to wedding guests on a plate, creating a unique kind of culinary journey. “The travel aspect is very much at the forefront of people’s minds,” says James.
“I look at my own staff who are under 25, and they’ve travelled the world more than I have”.
It’s opened their eyes to food on a broad scale, which can then factor into exciting and tantalising reception menus, featuring everything from a Thai tom kar gai soup to an Italian zuccotto dessert or a Japanese rare beef and enoki mushroom yakitori roll. Television chefing also plays a role in the increasing sophistication of menus.
“With the introduction of cooking shows, people have become much more aware of what’s available and what can be done,” James says. It’s all about creating excitement for guests and sending them home on a culinary high.
Dessert is great on its own, but multiple desserts are even better. And that’s the appeal of dessert canapés, which are increasing in popularity and bring real flexibility to a menu. “We have a reception coming up in two weeks’ time where the couple isn’t after a traditional timeline of a sit down entrée, a main course and then dessert,” James says.
“They feel like desserts often get wasted as people are up and dancing, so what they’re doing instead is having an hour of canapés, then the main course and then some sweet canapés.” The message here is about packing a punch with mini mouthfuls, and not just the ones you’d necessarily expect.
So something like chocolate fudge brownies with chocolate ganache sitting alongside rose-scented panna cottas with berry compote. In short, it’s about getting tongues wagging over something people love and something they’ve never had before. Just don’t be surprised if they create a line.
“You do get people following the waiters around,” says James, pointing to dessert share platters as another great idea. “It’s a bit like the Pied Piper effect. People will trail staff around and say ‘My friend had one of those and now I want one.’” Again, it’s a great way to do something classic with a little touch of difference.
“It’s about looking for something that’s a bit more substantial and something that keeps it interesting.”
At its heart, this involves serving an ever-changing procession of food that affords the opportunity to cast the menu a bit wider, from something like Asian slaw topped with sesame dusted chicken to wagyu sausages with creamy mash and mushroom sauce. James says light but substantial selections such as risotto are also an ever-popular popular option.
“People love risotto and we make it to order and serve it in a little ceramic blow,” he says. It’s all about looking and tasting spectacular. And again, it comes back to that balance between style and substance. “A grazing menu certainly adds to the social ambience,” James says. “It gets people talking and it keeps it fresh.”
They say looks matter. And nowhere is this truer than with reception food. James says colour and variety bring welcome individuality to the plating-up process.
“When you’re planning a menu, presentation is a key factor,” he says.
You have to think about what you’re serving: How big is it going to be? How are you going to eat it with a glass of champagne or wine in your hand? Can you put it in your mouth in one or two bites? They’re questions whose answers can lead couples well beyond the standard set of crockery.
“We use some really different styles of plating,” says James, pointing to tempters such as avocado, spiced tomato and prawn in a shot glass or skewers of pork belly.
“We’re talking everything from timber artist palettes to old roof slates.” Other materials to consider include cornets, which are perfect for such dishes as mini fish and chips, as well as leaves, baskets and takeaway cartons. It’s all about having a feast for the eyes as well as taste buds.
Other ideas for adding impact with your food and wine include signature cocktails created to suit your menu – and even wedding colours, late night snacks such as toasted sandwiches served just as your guests’ energy is flagging, bespoke printed menus and edible favours that link back to your celebration, say a miniature replica of your wedding cake.
Food suppliers are also enjoying the spotlight. “These days, more and more couples are paying attention to the origins of their food,” says James, who sources everything from Western Plains pork to Hopkins River beef. “They want to know where it comes from and they want to see that on their menu.” This is partly about paying attention to the carbon footprint of food, but mainly about taking pride. “It’s a little bit of added value,” he says.
“The ability, for example, to be able to say we have a certain kind of wagyu beef and you know that only goes to select places.
“More and more these days, especially with weddings, it’s about guests leaving and having a good sense of ‘Wow I’ve just been to a wedding and it was not what I expected,” says James, who points to the club, which is surrounded by plenty of free and unrestricted onstreet parking, as one of Melbourne’s best-kept secrets and a beautiful location for both ceremonies and receptions.
It’s also the perfect venue for receptions held at Como Park, which sits opposite the club.
“You want them to walk away and go ‘That food was fantastic. I was expecting soup, meat and three veg and maybe the wedding cake for dessert and instead we had this fantastic duck dish followed by this brilliant tuna and we finished with fantastic dessert canapés’.
“It was absolutely brilliant.”