Emelle's Catering, charcuterie board, Ami Sanyal Photography

Emelle's Catering, charcuterie board, Ami Sanyal Photography

Imagine the setting: dusk, at a wedding, with twinkling lights, pretty flowers and... corn dogs? Not your average festival food, this real wedding included a gourmet, carnival-themed reception. Featured food and drink included Kobe-beef corn dogs, deep-fried salmon cakes, duck-fat fried potatoes and a root beer float signature cocktail.

For many couples, a standout, catered dinner is one of the highlights of a wedding celebration, and producing it off-site is particularly impressive. But off-site events (rather than hotel or restaurant receptions) are also fraught with logistical challenges that people may be entirely unaware of.

Even a seemingly simple catered backyard barbecue can get tricky, says Nicole Burke of Emelle's Catering, who produced that award-winning carnival-themed reception. After 15 years and an average of 70 weddings per year, she's your guru when it comes to pulling off an off-site catered meal without a hitch.

While her team can produce a catered meal almost anywhere (that's legal), Burke starts by spending time with couples. Sometimes they need to be gently reminded that the more remote their venue, the more resources they'll have to bring along. This could include things like generators for power, to flooring and tents, to a source of water.

"You're really hiring a team," says Burke. "Not just the chefs, but bartenders, servers and all the administrative people who look after permits, licenses and insurance."

Emelle's Catering - Carnival-themed wedding

So when it comes to working with your dream caterer, here are Burke's top five tips for things to consider:

1. Ask to see a copy of the caterer’s business license and health permit. Don't be afraid of offending them. Anyone running a tight ship will have these documents on hand and will respect your right to review them.

2. Don't be afraid to ask for exactly what you want. Your caterer will be happy to recreate a long-time family favourite or even replicate a dish or menu you discovered while traveling abroad together.

3. Let your guests enjoy the day. Don't ask family and friends to pitch in to help out, even if it's a casual event. In tight spaces with quick turnaround, it's best to leave the execution to the pros.

4. Likewise, at the end of the evening, leave the cleaning up to the caterers. Fact: your well-meaning, but tired friends are not going to do a good job of cleaning at 2 a.m. If facility workers have to do additional cleaning the next day, you'll get charged for it. Pros like Emelle's Catering are familiar with the teardown process and can do it faster and more efficiently. "We always leave the venue, whether it's a private home or museum, in better condition than when we arrived," assures Burke.

5. "Seriously consider hiring a day-of coordinator or event coordinator," urges Burke. In fact, doing so will often save you money, as you'll have someone taking care of details that could cost you. Without one, caterers may become the de facto "go to" for extra supplies, like when the florist runs out of vases and borrows a few water pitchers, or when the well-intentioned groomsmen take a couple of tables and tablecloths for the gift table (that no one thought about until gifts started arriving). It can get chaotic quickly, but a professional coordinator will be prepared and know how to work with your caterer.

Emelle's Catering - uniquely youPhoto (charcuterie, top): Ami Sanyal Photography