Chattanooga wedding caterers talk tips, tricks and trends for the season

Staff photos by Robin Rudd and Matt Hamilton / Chattanooga chefs Michelle Wells, Denise Alcantara and Tara Plumlee
photo Staff photos by Robin Rudd and Matt Hamilton / Chattanooga chefs Michelle Wells, Denise Alcantara and Tara Plumlee

Behind the wedding dress and groom's attire, food served at the reception is at the top of the list when planning a wedding. No matter the theme or style - a seated multi-course dinner or cocktail-style reception - experts say the menu should reflect the personalities of the couple.

You want to serve something special, right? A tray of nuts and mints just won't do anymore.

Chatter sat down with several local caterers to hear what they have to say about trends in weddings and receptions, and also give some good ideas for easy foods to prepare if you're wanting to augment the buffet table with a dish made from home or need to boost the menu for a bridal shower.

photo Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Chef Michelle Wells, owner of Events with Taste, prepares gluten-free cake pops.

Michelle Wells, Events With Taste

Michelle Wells is a Chattanooga native who shifted from owning a popular downtown cafe, The Cupboard, to entering the catering world 21 years ago. Since then, she's catered untold numbers of weddings and has seen a shift in what couples want on their reception menus.

Chatter Magazine: Are food stations still popular?

Michelle Wells: Yes, but they've changed. They're more like action stations - street tacos, Asian noodle bars, made-to-order grilled cheese. We just did a poutine station for late-night food for a client from the Midwest.

Chatter: Is there a trend you'd like to see go away?

Michelle: We hope potato bars never come back.

Chatter: What about sit-down dinners?

Michelle: Plated multi-course meals seem to be making a comeback. I think it might have something to do with COVID because they have less interaction amongst guests.

Chatter: How early should couples book a caterer?

Michelle: As early as possible. Our calendar for next year is filling up quickly. We have about 65 events already on the books, so I would say it is safe to say, after the disastrous pandemic years, events are back.

Chatter: What's one of the more interesting cuisines you've been asked to serve at a wedding?

Michelle: I'm catering the reception of Keith Sanford's daughter in May. Her husband is from Trinidad, and so now I'm learning how to make Trinidad food for it. That's been fun!

The Cupboard Chicken Salad

Michelle Wells says this chicken salad was one of the most popular items on the menu at her restaurant, The Cupboard. It's perfect for any bridal party or shower, served on party bread or with crackers, and is easily doubled or tripled for a crowd.

1 pound chicken breast or tenders

2 celery stalks

1/2 cup small pecan pieces

1 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 teaspoon ground celery seed

1/4 cup honey mustard dressing (bottled or homemade)

1/4 cup mayonnaise

Salt and pepper, to taste

Boil chicken until tender; drain and shred.

Put celery in food processor and pulse until no large chunks remain. You almost want it pureed but not quite. The juice helps with texture, as well as flavor.

Put chicken, celery and rest of ingredients in your mixer with paddle attachment and blend until ingredients are well-blended. This may also be done by hand in a large mixing bowl.

Note: How long you boil the chicken will also affect how much mayonnaise and honey mustard you need, so if you prefer a creamier consistency, add a little more honey mustard. Salt and pepper, to taste.

photo Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Chef Tara Plumlee displays her shrimp tartlets at A Silverware Affair's kitchen.

Tara Plumlee, A Silverware Affair

Tara Plumlee began working in her dad's restaurant when she was 13 and has been in the catering business since she was old enough to drive.

"I drove the catering vans for the restaurant, and while their version of catering is much more simplistic than ours, it was what gave me a wonderful foundation upon which to build to what we are today."

Chatter Magazine: What trends are you seeing in wedding reception food now?

Tara Plumlee: Thankfully, large events are back, and we're seeing a trend of served buffets versus self-serve. The South is known for big portions and plenty of it, so the food trend here will always be to satisfy guests with a large menu to keep them full while drinking and dancing the night away.

Chatter: What trends would you like to see go by the wayside?

Tara: I'd like to see people move out of barns. When I moved here, there were one or two, and now our city is saturated with them. Surely we can be more creative with the influx of city-goers who have moved here and create unique spaces that are one-of-a-kind.

Chatter: About wedding cakes, are those over-the-top fondants still popular?

Tara: Weddings are more custom-curated now, and the cakes are whatever the bride and groom want. People still love cutting the cake for the photos, but we hear many couples say, "We aren't cake people," and then they choose their favorite desserts in mini forms, like cheesecakes, doughnuts, cupcakes - anything goes now.

Chatter: What are some ways to economize for a wedding reception?

Tara: It's no secret that prices are rising now, and there's no end in sight, especially in the food and beverage sector, so booking early in advance allows you to be sure to get today's pricing for next year's event. People need to realize that they need to allocate a bit more of their budget to adequately feed large groups of people with the ever-rising shortages and price increases across the board. Going with one company that handles multiple things, from the food, bar and equipment to maybe even a venue, too, is a great way to cut down on extra fees and lower pricing.

Chatter: Are seated dinner receptions coming back into vogue?

Tara: While Southerners are known for big buffets, creating a seated dinner has been discussed more since the separating of people is more prevalent now than in the past. This level of service contains guests for the first part of the event and keeps them served by one person versus going in a line with hundreds of guests. But if you are looking for a more economic choice, then seated dinners are never the way to go as they require a lot more work from a much larger staff, as well as china, glassware, flatware, linen napkins, etc.

Chatter: What's one of the most memorable weddings you've catered?

Tara: We catered a couple's wedding, then we catered her divorce party, and now we are planning her second wedding. We love our loyal clients, and it's sometimes funny to watch their life's journey and where it takes them. But they know regardless of the situation, we will be there for the long haul to provide excellent food and service to them. We never divorce our clients.

photo Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Chef Denise Alcantara's caramelized onion dip with toasted crostini is displayed at Chattown Catering.

Denise Alcantara, Chattown Catering

Born and raised in New Orleans, Denise Alcantara moved to Chattanooga eight years ago and realized the culinary style in Chattanooga is very different from what she was accustomed to, and that includes weddings. So she stuck with what she knew best - Creole and Cajun foods, an art she learned back in Louisiana where she would often cook for family gatherings when her large Italian family would get together for big celebrations. Weddings, then, were a no-brainer, so she opened Chattown Catering and now specializes in weddings.

Chatter Magazine: Are seated dinners popular once again?

Denise Alcantara: Yes, but they come with a price. I'd say about one-eighth of our clients choose seated dinners for their reception.

Chatter: What's their favorite meal?

Denise: Creole home-cooked food - Creole green beans, garlic-Parmesan chicken and scalloped potatoes.

Chatter: What trend would you like to see go away?

Denise: It's not really a trend, but the biggest challenge a caterer faces is an outside wedding in the middle of summer.

Chatter: What about the wedding cakes? Are couples going for tradition with a five-layer cake and bride and groom on top?

Denise: A smaller cake with cupcakes all around and assorted desserts are getting popular. They're easier to cut and easier to eat.

Chatter: What's one of the most memorable weddings you've catered?

Denise: The bride sat in her car the entire wedding because her venue had no air conditioning.

Chatter: Is there a formula for budgeting the wedding reception?

Denise: Yes, with today's market and prices ever-increasing, $140-$170 per head usually gives brides a comfortable, elegant wedding that is all-inclusive.

Chatter: And how far in advance should someone select a caterer?

Denise: Weddings are really picking up. I am presently booking for 2023, so contact a caterer as early as possible.

Chattown Caramelized Onion Dip

This dip looks beautiful on a silver platter with fresh vegetables and crisp crostini.

3 strips of bacon, chopped

2 large onions, finely diced

1 tablespoon of fresh thyme

1 teaspoon salt

3 dashes of cayenne pepper

16 ounces cream cheese, softened

1 cup of sour cream

2 tablespoons honey

3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

In large skillet, cook bacon and then crumble after it cools, drain, reserving drippings in skillet.

Sauté onions in bacon fat for 15 minutes or more till dark brown, stirring.

Place cream cheese and remaining ingredients in a food processor and process until smooth. Add onions to mixture, puree. Top with bacon and serve with crostini or colorful veggies.