Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Definitive Guide to Planning a Foodie Wedding on a Budget

If 2013 was the year of world-wide travel for us, 2014 has been the year of weddings. Starting with ours. We got married in May. And in June. We got married twice so we could share and celebrate with families both in North and South America. For us, the timing was just perfect: we had been engaged for a few years already and our original intent was to honeymoon it in Brazil for the World Cup. However, the timing was not ideal for our wallets since we had just returned from our nine months of travel and had just started to replenish our piggy banks.

Instead of stressing out about it, we knew from the beginning we were going to have a very casual, budget-friendly wedding in California. I also knew from the beginning that as far as logistics went, food was my priority and I would not budge on in terms of quality and deliciousness. During our multi-day treks in Ethiopia and long bus rides in Sri Lanka, we would mentally plan our wedding and throw numbers together in our heads to see how we could work with a tiny budget.

Our challenge was to do a great wedding with a hundred and forty guests for five thousand dollars. Insane. I know. But it didn't seem too impossible and I love getting creative with money and food. In the end, we got our dream wedding for $6k and I loved every blissful second of it. I never turned into a bridezilla (so I'm told) and the whole thing was a ton of fun and not all that stressful.

If you are tight on money and want to have a foodie wedding, this is the definitive how-to guide. Or at least it's my how-to. But first, three words of advice on general wedding planning:

Set your priorities. For us it was food as #1 and then a casual vibe as #2. Your priorities will drive your budget. If you want a foodie wedding, then make sure that food makes your top two.

Congrats! You're engaged so make sure to give yourself the gift of time if you can. Try not to rush into the wedding. If you can give yourself a year or at least nine months to plan, you will increase your chances of not turning into a nut-case and having an enjoyable wedding planning experience.

DIY. When it comes to budget, planning and doing a wedding yourself is key. Ask family and friends to help. From the point of view of saving money, I would advise against a wedding planner (make friends and family your planners), a DJ (iPod or iPhone plus portable speakers are great DJs), table staff (we hired college kids) and bar tenders (tap a keg and give people wine bottle openers for self-service). The only exception is a photographer so go ahead and spend money on that. Buy all of your decorations piece by piece over time and store them at home. On wedding day, recruit your planners to help you decorate. Oh and by the way, a day wedding is more economical than a night one.

Recycled wood and white paint: voila!

Now, the FOOD.

Definitely go for a venue that gives you 100% freedom to figure out your own food. For a naturally beautiful setting, I'd highly recommend you consider renting out a space at your local county or state park. It's cheaper than almost any venue and they allow you to do almost whatever you want. Plus, if there are tables there already then you don't have to spend money renting them. We reserved two picnic areas in a park and the whole thing cost us $600. Tables and chairs included.

Redwood park venue

Choosing a restaurant/caterer 
Since we have agreed that food is a priority, the first thing to do is to not go with a traditional wedding caterer. They're expensive and the trick to their business is not delicious food but the sweet margins they'll make from you. A strategy that worked really well for us was to think outside the box and to ask the most unusual suspects if they catered. Our first choice was an amazing seafood Sinaloa taco truck in a less than ideal part of East Oakland. Unfortunately, food trucks couldn't drive into the forest so that didn't work out. Too bad because they would've done the whole thing for $900. Instead, we found a great tiny hole in the wall Mexican joint further down the street from the Sinaloan spot that had delicious home-made cooking and even used Niman Ranch beef! Although it was only $300 more dollars than the food truck, it was still a great deal. Plus, Taco Grill is the best Mexican food we have found in the Bay Area so far and the owner was a pleasure to work with. So what I suggest is to go "hole in the wall hopping" and sample a wide variety of food from these small restaurants. Once you have found a few that you love, ask them if they cater. If they do, you're probably in business.

Taco Grill Goodness

Try not to mention the "w" word from the beginning just because it tends to hike up prices by at least 20%. Say you're curious about their catering options for your party size—ours was 140—and you're wondering what kind of service they offer. We opted to not get any appetizers or drinks (seemed like it just added to the bill because people would be guzzling beer and wine) and just focused on the food. We wanted to make sure every guest could stuff themselves (God forbid you run out of food!) but we estimated about two tacos and a tamale for each person, which is already too much, plus side dishes like veggies and salad. We ordered food we actually liked instead of trying to cater to our vegan, gluten-free, dairy intolerant, raw food, whatever-else-is-out-there friends. We only got pork, beef and veggies.... because that's what we wanted. As far as finances, the total came out to under $9 per person for a very filling lunch. Not bad. Plus, set up and two servers were included in our order.

We didn't get appetizers from Taco Grill because we figured we could do it ourselves. The only exception was the 380 oz (almost 3 gallons) of their home-made guac—it's to die for, we didn't want it running out and was worth the investment! This is when Costco really came through. We kind of have a thing for cheese so we bought 13 pounds of all kinds of gourmet cheese for a massive cheese platter. We finished up the appetizer tables with strawberries, blueberries and grapes, all kinds of fun crackers (we didn't opt for bread or other types of fruit because it would've been a pain to slice/cut), chips and guac. I think we spent around $300 total on appetizers.

Keeping it simple: berries, cheese, crackers /chips and guac

Our venue did not allow hard liquor so it made our choice nice and easy: wine and beer. We got a 15 gallon keg of golden ale, a 15 gallon keg of black lager, and a five gallon keg of IPA from one of our favorite local breweries, Linden Street, for about $150 total. We could've easily gotten away with one 15 gallon keg plus a five gallon keg and spent even less. Wine was a big challenge initially. Our goal was to spend $5 per bottle for GOOD wine, which involved a lot of sampling but gave us a great excuse to have a lot of wine dinner parties! Living in the Bay Area, we decided we would be able to score at some of the Sonoma wineries so we did some tasting weekends up in wine country. There were no deals to be had! We then tried the 0.5 cent sale at BevMo! but those wines were actually too expensive and just not very good. Maybe $5/bottle was too ambitious... until we wine sampled at Trader Joe's. We were shocked at how good their less expensive wine tasted. We ended up settling for about six cases of mostly red and some whites. There were definitely $3.99 bottles in there that tasted quite good! We also got lucky and one of our friends who works at a winery in Napa hooked us up with three cases of very good wine and charged us at cost so we were able to offer our guests a very nice bottle for their first few glasses. So my advice is to go on some wine tastings just for the fun of it if you're going to have wine at your wedding but if you're pressed for time just skip it all and give Trader Joe's a try. We ended up spending around $500 on wine and stayed on budget. To be honest, no one drinks that much wine at a day wedding so we could've spent $350 total and still be fine. The risk of running out while we were planning the wedding kept us on the more conservative end of things but, oh well, now we have wine for the remainder of the year!

Don't forget the non-booze drinks! 

I don't have a sweet tooth and I don't really like cake or anything sugary for that matter. Neither of us wanted a wedding cake so we were looking for alternatives like huge bowls of sliced fruit or dark chocolate truffles. But there was no time to buy a lot of fruit and cut it up and a minimum of 300 chocolate truffles would ruin the wallet. A month or so before the wedding we still had no f***ing clue about the whole dessert thing and it was starting to get a little stressful. Thankfully, our dear friend and neighbor invited us over for a charcuterie and sangria party and they randomly got a red velvet bundt cake for dessert. I focused 99.99% of my attention on the beautiful salame, smoked turkey, fig, goat cheese, green apple, honey and brie display he had made and I wouldn't have even tried a pinch of that cake if it wasn't for his urging. I gave in and had a tiny taste of the cake and I was sold. It was a delicious, chocolatey, velvety, moist, ridiculous cake! We ordered eight for our wedding from Nothing Bundt Cakes and were finally able to solve our dessert conundrum. For your wallet's sake, my advice is to avoid the whole traditional wedding cake route and get something you actually like to eat. If it does not come in an extra large size, just order 3 or 4x the amount and you'll be all set. I think we spent about $240 on all eight cakes and it was such a hit I know I went for seconds and almost everyone else I talked to at the wedding did too!

One of the few cakes I'll ever eat

So, let's run the food tab:
Booze: .......... $650
Appetizers: ... $300
Lunch: .......... $1,250
Cake: ............ $240

Let's round that total up to $2,500.

The rest looked more or less like this:
Photographer: .... $1,300
Decorations: ...... $500
Wedding dress: .. $40
Venue+Uhaul: ... $800
Miscellaneous: ... $400

For a $6,000 wedding, that's not bad at all. And to be honest, we really did get a lot of food and booze. Although we had a small budget, we never compromised on taste or quality and focused on getting truly delicious food for our guests and us. We had a keg and a half of great local beer left over, about three or four glorious cakes that we ate for the rest of the weekend and froze, BOMB Mexican leftovers even after people went up for triples (!!), about two blocks of awesome cheese we stashed in our fridge and approximately four cases of really good wine.  I'm not saying that I wanted to—a foodie's worst nightmare, running out of food, kept me in check—but less food could have been purchased, allowing even more breathing room for all the rest of the wedding stuff. But regardless we were thrilled to accomplish our goal of having a fun, relaxed and casual wedding with the best food ever.

If you're a foodie, don't let a small budget scare you into compromising on your passion. Have fun with it and get creative, you'll be amazed at how exciting the process can be and how budget-friendly wedding food can be. Remember to relax and to enjoy sharing the best day of your life with your closest friends and family. Most important, eat, drink and be merry.

**This post is dedicated to our friends who came from far and near, our amazing and supportive families who put up with us and dedicated countless hours to help us plan and set up our wedding, our amazing wedding officiant and his wife, our musicians and all of you we know wish could have been there but could not make it. Above all, I dedicate this to my brilliant, loving and talented husband Eliot: I'm excited about the adventurous and food-filled times we'll get to share for the rest of our lives.**

Mr. and Mrs. Peper

PS: feel free to reach out to me with any questions. I left out a LOT of wedding planning stuff because there is just so much that goes into a wedding but I'd be happy to try to help if I can!

All of the photos on this post were taken by our great photographer, Praise. Check her out if you want a good, affordable photographer: www.comeplum.com

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Confessions of a Sabbatical Returnee

Whoa, those BLUES came out of nowhere...

It happened within hours of returning to California from Burning Man and it hit me like a ton of bricks. The 9-month world foodventure that started in Nepal, brought us to Ethiopia, Indonesia and a lot of other places in between had just ended. Although we spent a few days in Los Angeles and San Diego immediately after we left Singapore, it was all in preparation for Burning Man, which felt like it was closer to being in Mars than being in the USA. The acknowledgment process that our fantastic sabbatical was finally over did not start until we unpacked our playa dust covered backpacks and started cleaning up after spending a week in the insane desert up in Black Rock City.

From one moment to the next, there wasn't somewhere to be, something to pack or  some way to figure out how to get from point A to point B. It all just felt "settled" and static. I realized something was wrong when I was sleeping-in and did not even want to get out of bed, talk to anyone or go out to socialize. I didn't know why I was feeling so funky but after a few days, as I was sitting in the parked car just staring out into space, I jerked back a little and realized I was depressed. Depressed! How did I just go from being so obnoxiously happy and content to actually feeling depressed? Change.

I'm a fan of change. I like spontaneity. Routine can get boring. But routine can also get addicting and it doesn't take much to get used to. When that routine is fun and involves traveling the world, it's even easier to get used to. This change was too abrupt. Everything was too different. Everything seemed too dull. Worst of all, everything felt too serious. I felt immense amounts of pressure to "get serious" and go back to work and start being productive. Thinking about it made it worse and I felt even more depressed. I started feeling anxious that I was getting myself into some deep negative emotional hole that I had no interest in experiencing. This whole return business was just awful.

It remained awful for a few days until I broke my awkward silence and started talking about it. I broke the silence because I realized I was focusing on the wrong things. I kept wishing that I was back on the trip and not permanently in California. I wanted to hop on a plane so bad and disappear again. But I realized that this was no different from dealing with reverse ear block 15 feet below the ocean surface, mouse infested guesthouses in the middle of nowhere or being covered in white and green gunk from a sickly woman who just sneezed all over you in a cramped bus (gross, I know, but that did happen). 

Those of us who have the luxury of choice are extremely fortunate. I finally got out of the fog and chose to have a different perspective and to start talking about how I was feeling. By making this choice and with Eliot's incredible support and patience, I was able to get out of what felt like a self-induced brief spout of mild depression. I'm lucky it was easy for me. It's not that easy for others tormented by this illness...

I have since loved being in the Bay Area, and have gone on endless hikes in the redwoods, eaten at the best hole in the wall places and discovered that if you're a foodie, Christmas is possible every day if you live close enough to Berkeley: it's called Berkeley Bowl.

Fellow travelers: if you're ever stuck in that dark hole, just remember that you have a choice and make sure you surround yourself by a strong, supportive community who'll help you get out of it. The adventure of life never stops, no matter what changes may come or where you may find yourself. Get out there. Eat your heart out. Never stop adventuring.

****In memory of our beloved friend Brian****

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The food adventures continue in California!

This is a very brief post but I just wanted to announce that the food adventures are back! Get ready for several posts on California food adventures: from olive oil and shrub tastings to finding authentic lebanese and thai hole in the wall establishments, the eating and finally the cooking (oh the COOKING!) has not stopped.

Sunday funday: home-made brunch!