Everywhere across the world — from the pristine climes of the Amalfi Coast in Italy to the knackered Marriage Bureau of the City Hall in New York — the showstopper of a wedding is almost always the bride. Except in India, where guests are more likely to find the baby naan cute, and the bride tanned/old/raddled. This is a country where parents start planning what the wedding buffet will or won’t have even before the child’s umbilical cord stump has fallen off. So, the food served at an Indian wedding is undoubtedly a pretty big deal.
The last decade has seen the rise of India’s affluent youth, who, armed with a greater sense of discernment, have started playing a pivotal role in curating their own weddings. This, in turn, has led to a gargantuan demand in bespoke catering services, eventually heralding a new era in the country’s wedding catering story. The new world of wedding food appears modest, but is perhaps more luxurious than it has ever been before. Gone are the days of cookie-cutter menus, hara bhara kebab and sticky gulab jamun. Today, serpentine buffets with all kinds of cuisines are being replaced with the ‘flying buffet’, sit down dinners are gaining gumption, kebab and chaat is being replaced with pretty looking canapes, live counters are dishing out Thai street food instead of Indianised pasta, and increasingly, clients are pushing caterers to do interactive desserts — like assorted French toast or a churros station — instead of petit fours like cake, brownie, and cheesecake. For all its pared down austerity, food at Indian weddings right now is ostensibly the most complex it has been.
Elucidating on this, Aditi Dugar, CEO and owner of Sage And Saffron, a gourmet catering business, says, “Menus and event setups used to be a bit more standard across weddings, but the level of innovation in both food and presentation has increased drastically. People often want input from a number of different companies, each with their own specialties, literally aiming for the world on your plate. There’s a lot more thought that goes into things like food and buffet styling.” Though Dagar’s name is synonymous with the award-winning restaurant, Masque, and other F&B establishments under the Urban Gourmet banner, her foray into food, interestingly, began with catering. Many moons ago, Dugar’s mother began catering for small house parties and events and, with Dugar’s assistance, slowly shaped it into the holistic service that it is today.
Chef Bhakti Mehta’s catering company, Little Food Co, too has a similar genesis story. Her brand was born in 2010 when she first served Thai pani puri and wasabi hummus along with two other canapes at a friends store launch. At the time, Mehta was working as a marketing professional. Nine months later, she made the pivot and last year, around Diwali, she even bagged big-ticket clients like Bollywood actors Bhumi Pednekar and Kriti Sanon. In the last 12 years, the self-taught chef has catered for private house parties, pre-wedding events, retail store launches, ad film shoots and birthday parties. But the pandemic has opened new doors, she says. “Since the pandemic, small weddings are in. This opens up the wedding space for people like me, who can comfortably cater for 200 to 300 people. Also, at venues such as residential club houses, Alibaug, Karjat, Lonavala and Aamby Valley City,” she explains, adding that as intimate weddings garner interest, caterers are able to play with carefully constructed menus, instead of the ones that featured over 20 counters of food.
As Mehta points out, selective customers choosing quality over quantity has certainly helped catalyse the changing fabric of the wedding catering biz, and there could be a number of things profligating this change. Delhi-based catering brand CAARA’s co-founder, Ambika Seth, feels that while a large percentage continues to prefer massive and lavish weddings, there is a growing number of couples who are involved in the planning, and want the food to be representative of them. She says, “Our first endeavour is always about being able to include a bit of the bride and groom’s choices and personalities, and their journey so far, in the menu. Be it cuisines they like, places they have travelled to together, or food they may have bonded over. This personal touch is important today.” Others still, are opting out of ostentatious menus in lieu of compact ones that are less wasteful.
Chef Amninder Sandhu of The Final Table(an American cooking competition show) fame asserts that innovative food-driven concepts, helmed by chefs, is also ruling the roost. Sandhu, who uses everything from a sand pit to a sigree for her catering events, is the founder of Bliss Food Experiences, another bespoke brand which has its name to several high-end weddings, including that of industrialists, top celebrities, cricketers, and real estate tycoons. “Sensory dining, where visuals and sound enrich the experience, is what we specialise in. The idea is to treat all the senses and create an immersive culinary experience that can evoke emotions and memories,” she feels.
The common thread tying all the trends that are defining today’s wedding foodscape is this: less is more. And such an approach is necessarily characterised by attention to detail, be it in food, fashion, or for that matter, even writing. Rhea Chatterjee — also wife to Avik Chatterjee, who inherited Specialty Group — has taken on the reins of the hospitality chain’s catering wing, Specialty Experiences. She thinks, presentation, too, plays a phenomenal role while engineering the menu for a wedding these days. “While we are growing our teams extensively, so that we can innovate and ideate on new menu concepts, we have been simultaneously investing in exclusive crockery to ensure the plating and service is top of the line.”
But as the new-gen bride/groom pushes for customisation, sustainability and highly curated menus, does reconciling their demands with the business’ core principles or challenges become an issue? Folks like Sandhu and Dugar have managed to pull off inane requests, even if that involves taping plates to a table on a windy yacht, or organising a scooty with cans attached to it, carrying a waiter serving dessert as the pillion. One client wanted a robot-themed event, with food passed around on drones and by robotic arms. Of course, they didn’t get that. Seth, however, opines that the guest may not always be right. “After all, you are an expert in your field so it’s important that when certain client demands come your way, you analyse their feasibility and then honestly put forth your opinion on whether it can be executed or not,” she suggests.
But the question remains, at a time when betrothed couples can choose from a large variety of options, including things like grazing tables, charcuterie boards, modern cuisines, chef-led menus, food cooked la minute, live stations and mini appetisers served in individual crockery (instead of being poked and prodded with a toothpick), why would anyone want robots? Jokes aside, the good thing is that we do have choices. And there’s joy in knowing that we’ve moved away from the era of wasteful buffets, especially — in my personal opinion — the rather grotesque Waldorf salad. None of that please.