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No more ‘chicken or fish?’ on wedding invites. Now on the menu: Plant-based entrées

No more ‘chicken or fish?’ on wedding invites. Now on the menu: Plant-based entrées

Robin Selden of Marcia Selden Catering recently designed and executed a
vegan menu for a 300-person wedding in Connecticut. The bride, who is vegan,
insisted on plant-based food for her wedding day. Her father, however, is a bit
“steak and potatoes type of guy,” Selden says, and was skeptical of his
daughter’s choice of cuisine.

“At the end of the night, he was hugging us,” Selden says. “He could not
believe how nobody—including him—missed the meat. He said numerous times that
the guests were blown away by it.”

It’s an occurrence that wedding catering companies are experiencing more and more. Whether it’s catering to the dietary restrictions of friends and family or a reflection of their own eating habits, plant-based foods are on the rise for the wedding day. Couples strive to customize their nuptials in every possible way, from the venue to the afterparty. With that, of course, comes food, one of the biggest touch points of any large-scale event. As couples think about the guest experience for their weddings, specialty diets inevitably come up: vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and dairy-free, among others.

These caterers collaborate with couples to offer meat-free and dairy-free menus (also nut-free and gluten-free), not only for a few vegan guests but for the entire wedding guest list as a whole.
Courtesy of Marcia Selden Catering

While many venues and catering companies are sticking to the classic steak, fish, and pasta, there is a movement among a growing number of wedding-focused businesses to offer plant-based menus that are delicious, high-end, and creative. These caterers collaborate with couples to offer meat-free and dairy-free menus, not only for a few vegan guests or vegan couple, but for the entire wedding guest list as a whole.

“People are more conscious about making healthy choices for their
guests,” says Selden, who caters approximately 40 weddings a year as well as
more than 900 social and corporate events. “They live a healthier lifestyle
that they want their weddings to reflect their style of eating too.”

It’s what inspired Selden to partner with Matthew Kinney Cuisine last
summer to launch Naked Fig Catering, an entirely plant-based catering company
that elevates vegan cuisine to that of luxury hospitality establishments. For
them, eating plant-based isn’t a fad; it’s a way of life.

“This is a global movement that I don’t see regressing,” Kinney says.
“It’s about learning how to use plants in a way that chefs have not
historically used plants. People are more interested in the planet and in
person health than ever before, and these are two things that will never be
unimportant.”

With Naked Fig Catering, Matthew Kenney says the vendor marries a plant-based culinary art with ultimate nutrition.
Phillip Van Nostrand

The plant-based food industry is now worth $4.5 billion, an industry that has grown 11% in just one year, according to a report from the Good Food Institute and Plant Based Foods Association. And it’s a sector that’s growing at an extremely fast rate. The alternative protein market is on track to capture 10% of the meat market (worth $19.5 billion) and plant-based milks comprise 13% of the entire milk category. “Plant proteins will continue to dominate media, diet trends, and social media in 2020,” says Suzy Badarocco of Culinary Tides, a food industry trend forecaster. The Golden Globes, for instance, made headlines for serving an entirely vegan menu at the awards this month.

It’s not surprising that would extend to weddings. Sustainability can be
difficult to achieve in many wedding-related line items, such as flowers and
fashion, but is easier to realize when it comes to food. Henry Rich, managing
partner of Purslane Catering in New York City, oversees a team that not only
creates plant-based menus, but is also the first zero-waste and carbon-neutral
catering company in the world. They are now part of Oberon Group, the first
carbon-neutral hospitality group in New York. “Cooking with plants is one of
the most straightforward ways to limit carbon output from an event,” Rich says.

Marcia Selden Catering, known for their high-end work in weddings and with major brands like Disney, believes veganism isn’t a trend, but rather a way of life.
Courtesy of Marcia Selden Catering

Rich explained that wedding food traditionally has had a bad reputation
as a one-size-fits-all approach to serving the meal. The traditional American
wedding still serves a pasta dish, chicken dish, and red meat dish. In the past
five years, though, he has seen a shift toward the elevation of catering to a
restaurant-caliber experience. With that, he notes, comes a focus on dietary
restrictions. “We live in a world where once niche dietary requests are
becoming mainstream,” he says, adding that he would be surprised if caterers in
major cities didn’t address this with basically every client. “When you’re
making food with intention, offering tailored specifications is not difficult.”

Hosting a plant-based menu at your wedding includes the cake, too.
Traditional bakeries still claim that nothing is as good as eggs, flour, and
chocolate, but vegan bakers will politely disagree. “We can not only create an
edible masterpiece, but also make it vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, you name
it,” says Carolyn Van Buskirk, chef and owner of Half Baked Co. in Burbank, Calif.,
which supplies cakes to 200 weddings each year. “We don’t just do vegan vanilla
or chocolate; we do every single flavor on our menu in vegan and gluten-free
options.” That includes popular choices like cookies and cream, salted caramel,
and vegan honey and lavender.

Van Buskirk explains that it makes a big impact, not just on the bride
or groom who may have a dietary restriction or preference, but likely one or
more of the guests will too. “You want to make sure everyone can partake and be
part of the party,” she adds.

A “Marble Mood” wedding cake by Lael Cakes
Lindsey Roman Photography

Emily Lael Aumiller, pastry chef and founder of Lael Cakes in Brooklyn, N.Y., makes only plant-based desserts with dyes extracted from the natural pigments of fruits and vegetables. Her sculptural cakes could easily stand next to a traditional wedding cake, and most guests would never know the difference from sight alone. As for flavor, Aumiller has spent a decade perfecting her recipes, including a beet red velvet cake and a carrot caraway seed cake with orange blossom ginger icing.

“Subtracting the traditional basics—gluten, eggs, dairy, and refined sugars—can be intimidating,” Aumiller says. “I still have clients that won’t tell their guests about the ingredients because of the vegan and gluten-free faux pas. That’s their prerogative. Our work is delicious because of our ingredients, not in spite of.”

It’s not easy-breezy, though. Beyond skeptical clients and guests, Selden noted that many plant-based foods include nuts, which is challenging for those with relevant allergies. To appeal to carnivores in the crowd, it takes creativity with unexpected flavors, textures, and presentation to really “wow” the guest. Lael says that developing plant-based recipes is no small task—it can be quite time-consuming with a lot of trial and error—and Rich admits he has encountered the occasional guest that feels entitled to eat meat at a wedding. (“They seem to be confused as to why meat is not a baseline offering,” he says.)

However, the future looks bright for those working with vegan dishes. “The increasing inclusion in the wedding industry over recent years has allowed for a wider definition of what can be amazing wedding food,” Rich explains. “Plant-based menus are naturally more dietary inclusive, have a significantly lower carbon footprint and are better for our bodies. Weddings are an opportunity for a couple to share with their closest friends and family who they are and what they stand for; we believe more and more couples will put their values first.”

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—The most anticipated books of 2020, according to Goodreads
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—The magic of the wedding industry’s most exclusive conference
—Just in time for Dry January: No-alcohol whiskey and gin alternatives
—The best travel destinations for every season of 2020
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