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August 17, 2006

Talk of the Table heading

Catering his own wedding


I don't usually crash weddings. It was Judy's idea. As you may or may not know, my boss Judy and her husband Bob make wine out in Fieldbrook and regularly rent out the winery grounds for wedding parties and the like. She called on Saturday telling me about this wedding on Sunday. "The groom's a chef and he's catering it himself. It might make a sweet column," she offered. I was hesitant, not wanting to intrude, wondering who the groom might be. "You probably know him," Judy said, explaining that he'd worked in local restaurants including Ramone's (when it was a restaurant) and Folie Douce.

photo of Heidi and DanWhen she mentioned that they were having the wedding rehearsal dinner at Stars, I realized I did know the groom, Dan McHugh. We'd worked the line together at the Bay City Grill years ago, before he went off to cooking school and a job in San Francisco. After he returned to Humboldt to work as chef at Folie Douce, I'd interviewed him for a story about wild mushrooms. (He's since moved on to cutting meat and fish at Wildberries.)

He'd told me then about falling in love with a co-worker when he was managing Stars. And now he and Heidi were getting married. I figured if it was OK with him, I'd see what was cooking at the wedding. It was. I did.

I found Dan in the winery tasting room sipping beers with some of his old kitchen mates. Dan was part way into his tux, struggling to put on cuff links. His former cooking partners were in tuxes too since they were the ushers. They'd all worked together at Hawthorne Lane, a classy Cali-cuisine place south of Market in San Francisco. Like Dan, the guys were grads from one cooking school or another, and now they'd moved on from Hawthorne to make their way in the food biz. Jason is beverage manager at Thirsty Bear, a brew pub/tapas bar not far from the Hawthorne. Ian is in the kitchen at Vignette, an elegant neo-Euro joint in the Orchard Hotel on Nob Hill. Josh works for Google, where, as you may have heard, cafeteria food has been reaching new gourmet heights.

Somehow they'd all managed to get the weekend off to join Dan on his big day and, the night before, to serve as his DIY prep crew. After the rehearsal dinner (burgers and hand-cut French fries at Stars) the re-assembled crew headed next door to "The Douce" to work until 3 a.m., getting ready for Sunday's meal. And what a meal it was!

"It's just a barbecue," said Dan when I asked for the details. "But it is my wedding barbecue," he added, letting on that it was a bit more of a gourmet affair. He said he'd been to four or five weddings since he'd proposed to Heidi and found most of them lacking on the food front. "Too many dried-out chicken breasts with salsa," was how he put it. Then there was the cash factor. Hiring a caterer can cost a pretty penny, and as Dan noted, "I had such a great support staff." Working together in close quarters in a restaurant kitchen creates a sense of family, and his cooking family had volunteered to help him out. For details on the menu he referred me to Peter, his old boss from Folie Douce, who was heading up the on-site kitchen crew, more of Dan's former co-workers.

photo of foodThe appetizer array included some Humboldt staples: bowls of Henry's olives (the lemon-garlic manzanillos), chevre from Cypress Grove and slices of Brio's crusty pain au lavain. Dan created a special sausage for the occasion: pork mixed with pistachios and juniper berries, poached and served cold with a horseradish crème fraîche. Since the Folie Douce crew was at the grill, it was fitting they'd have the restaurant's famous grilled oysters with sesame oil and plum paste. Then there were the prawns, big ones, tossed in some Dan-made herb marinade and grilled in the shell.

Dinner proper was served buffet-style beginning with the most gorgeous tomato salad I've seen in ages: slabs of large red, green and gold heirloom toms from Neukom Family Farms in Willow Creek layered with slices of mozzarella, with basil chiffonade sprinkled on top and all of it drizzled with just enough balsamic vinegar. Next to that a mound of al dente green beans with some sort of nuts tossed in a dressing made spicy by sambal olek, a Southeast Asian chili paste, then two bowls of potato salad (with or without pancetta) made from freshly unearthed red creamers from Paul Giuntoli's Warren Creek Farms. There was a great cole slaw (not the kind made with mayonnaise), and a spring-mix salad dressed with a delicate vinaigrette. Palate-cleansing grapes (snipped into perfect little bunches) were followed by a platter of thick-cut onions brushed with oil and grilled.

Chaffing dishes at the end of the serving line held juicy slices of tri-tip beef, coated with a spice/garlic rub, grilled to perfect pinkness. Alongside: smoky, pulled pork, so tender it was falling apart, served with fire-toasted ladybug buns from Brio. Accompanying this carnivore's dream were a pair of crocks, one holding Texas red barbecue sauce, another with something Dan described as his "Carolina black pepper vinegar sauce — border-style," a tangy hot mustard concoction with origins somewhere on the border between North and South Carolina.

photo of foodFor the vegetarians, Dan prepared a flaky strudel: layers of puff pastry filled with shreds of kale and carrots, and tiny little chanterelle mushrooms, which must be the first of the season.

When all was ready the bride and groom made their way down the line, Dan filling Heidi's plate. They walked together to eat with family, passing the wedding cake, a wonderfully simple creation with plain white frosting and a few flowers. It would be served later with the plumpest blackberries I've seen this year and amazingly sweet peaches, again from Jacques and Amy's Neukom Farms. I didn't stay to see it cut. I'd kept my champagne consumption to a single glass when I'd toasted Dan and Heidi's day. After devouring my share of the best wedding feast I can remember, I headed home to write.

When I initially arrived and talked with Dan, he'd demanded, "Tell us about your wedding." I told him it was a very simple affair. Since we didn't have much money we had a potluck wedding at the Dows Prairie Grange. We sprang for a couple of cases of champagne and hired a band. One of the cooks I worked with insisted on making the cake.

I wish I could offer details about the great food people brought, but I can't. We made a tactical mistake. I'd figured there was no way we could be sure to greet the 100 or so in attendance, so we stationed ourselves in the hallway between the big room where we were married and the kitchen where the food was laid out. That made us last in line for the potluck and by the time we had met with all the guests there was no food left, not a bite. We didn't have a real best man or maid of honor, and no one had put a plate together for us.

All we had on our wedding day was cake and champagne. We got drunk. But it was just fine; it was still a great day. And it proved to be the start of something that's lasted a long time. This coming Monday will mark 25 years since that day we had cake and champagne for dinner. And we're still together, still in love. My wish for Dan and Heidi is that they are just as lucky.

your Talk of the Table comments, recipes and ideas to Bob Doran.


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