I once attended a wedding where, on my way to the bathroom, I noticed a dead fly stuck in the pristine white frosting of the otherwise beautiful three-tiered wedding cake. I immediately pointed it out to the next staff member I saw and watched them visibly sigh as they lifted their walkie to deal with the issue. It was clear this was not their best day. This moment followed an unintentional two-hour-long cocktail hour, during which I also witnessed an argument between a bartender and his supervisor.
Weddings are hard; with big budgets and big expectations come even bigger ways in which things can go wrong. We asked wedding industry pros — those people who are often responsible for what some people unironically refer to as the best day of their lives — for the worst mishaps and the most unfortunate turn of events they’ve experienced on the job. Their wedding food horror stories, if you will. There are tears, hunger pains, and some truly questionable decision-making, but those in the throes of their own discussions with caterers, planners, photographers, and the like need not fear. As was the case with the fly in the cake, in the end, at least this group was (mostly) able to make it through the night without the married couples knowing the full extent of the drama.
Not enough fish
Xochitl Gonzalez, author of Olga Dies Dreaming and former wedding planner
Very early in my career, I did a wedding with this caterer. It was a tiny, banquet-style event, and he was serving watermelon soup in half watermelons, and the waiters couldn’t carry them because they were so heavy, and there was soup all over the floor and people kept falling. It was an absolute disaster. Years go by, and we avoided working with this person again. And then this couple calls, and they’re like, “We’re in a pinch, and everything’s falling apart. The caterer seems like a bit of a mess, and we can’t lose our deposit. Could you please help us?” (We had a service where we did day-of coordination.) And of course what ends up happening is it’s that same caterer, and he doesn’t have enough food. He was serving fish as the entree, and he didn’t have enough fish. And not only does he not have enough fish — instead of just figuring it out, they kept realizing that they’re still out of fish, so they’d send somebody down to the Whole Foods to get more fish, but like five pieces of fish at a time. The poor catering captain — because it’s not his fault, he’s just in charge of the waiters — is in between having a heart attack inside on the floor and chain-smoking outside, calling the person that they had to send to the store. It was a nightmare. We’re just trying to keep it from the families, but meanwhile, people are sitting there, starving, waiting for their little piece of fish.
The dance floor is no place for a cake
Claire Ptak, owner of Violet Cakes and author of Love Is a Pink Cake
One time I set up a cake on a dance floor in a tent outside. It was the most beautiful cake I’ve ever made. The dance floor was set up on the grass, so it was not super, super stable. I set the whole thing up, I took loads of photos of it, and then I drove off — and then I got a call minutes later telling me that the cake just flew to the ground. It slid right off the table. As a couple having a wedding, make sure that you ask about where the cake’s going to be displayed so that you don’t have any accidents.
The caterer got the date wrong
Carissa Campbell, Campbell Events
I was doing a tented wedding upstate, and it got to be about half an hour past the time that the caterer was supposed to show up, and I was calling and calling and getting absolutely no answer. So I was like, Okay, hopefully, he’s just in traffic. Sure enough, I finally get an answer, and he thinks it’s on a completely different day, even though I had had so many calls and so many emails with him prior. So I’m asking him, “Where’s the food? What’s going to happen?” and he’s like, “We don’t have anything prepared.” So I’m like, all right, the wedding is starting in half an hour, and we have absolutely no food for cocktail hour in an hour. I was training a new assistant that day, and I told her, “This is not usual at all, so please don’t think you will ever have to do this again in your life. But you have to go out there, pretend to be me. This is a pretty easy wedding. I have to be back here cooking.”
I did an emergency order through the half-an-hour Amazon Fresh, and I kind of started doing the menu as best as I could. I also Seamless-ed in some food from some local restaurants to try to make up for some of the food. And then the caterer showed up about four hours later after I had already cooked cocktail hour, served it, and then did the soup and the salad course. He came back, and he was able to muster up some food for dinner. It was one of those moments where you had to make very split-second decisions and everybody was just staring at each other like, What are we going to do?
The caterer was so apologetic, and he went to go talk to the couple, and I looked at him and was like, “They have no idea what just happened. Please do not tell them.” I told them at the end, and they only noticed one menu item that was missing, and that’s what they thought he was apologizing for.
The swan dance
I once helped organize and run a tasting for a catering company. The bride’s father was the CEO of a major credit card company, and even though they lived out of state, they decided that a New York wedding was on the menu for them. The family had three separate tastings for their wedding. And we’re not talking about a small wedding. They had at least 300 guests, so there were going to be many different passed appetizers, wine and Champagne, and several courses served over the entire night.
At the second tasting, the mother and bride got a little too tipsy and started fighting about which canapes they wanted for cocktail hour and after dinner. It got to the point where the mother had to make it clear who was paying for the wedding (i.e., not the bride). After that disaster, they opted for a third tasting, but someone must have said or done something behind the scenes because mother and bride behaved like angels. On the day of the wedding, there were fights between the service director and our lead captain behind the scenes, but it was a hit for the wedding party and guests. It’s something we call a “swan dance”: beautiful and elegant on the surface but a hot mess underneath the water.
“If I let it go, it was going to be on the floor”
Leah Backstrom, owner of Ink Sweets
This was a July wedding, and the couple wanted a wedding cake that was cool and sculptural. I did nothing different than what I normally do for my wedding cakes, structurally speaking, and so I was like, Oh, this is going to be fine, no big deal. But then it ended up being 100 degrees. Minnesota in July is also humid. It was a humid, hot day. Part of the problem was the cake was chocolate hazelnut, with a ganache. It had all these things that heat just makes slippery. And so I’m driving in my car to the wedding, and I can see it in the back moving in the box in a way it should not be moving. I pull over on the side of the highway, and I run to the back of my car, and it’s just sliding. It’s sliding like the leaning tower of Pisa. No matter how hard I was blowing my AC in the back of the car, this thing was going to go down. It was horrible. I burst out into tears. By the time I made it to the venue, I had to take it apart tier by tier because if I let it go, it was going to be on the floor. Luckily it was two of the chillest clients I’ve ever had. So of course I show up, I’m sobbing, and the bride had to come over and comfort me. She was like, “It’s fine. As long as the cake is here and we can still serve it, everything’s going to be fine.”
There are not a lot of people who would have reacted the same way. I ended up having to give it to them in pieces. When we took the top tier off, it was still interesting enough to look at that we were able to put that on a cute little pedestal; we put flowers on it. They did have something to photograph and something to cut. So it was okay, but for me it was the worst thing that could happen in the entire world.
300 ravenous white people
Libby Willis, chef and recipe developer
I had taken over the wedding cake program at a bakery, and all of a sudden I was thrust into selling the cakes and making the cakes. The first solo event I did happened to be for this huge fancy wedding in Cleveland. They wanted a huge cake and a pastry table, and it was very clear it was “spare no expense,” so we created a menu with all these mini desserts. The cake was going to be seven tiers and displayed in the middle of the room on what I was told was a four-foot-tall tree stump for a “magical forest feel.” They wanted me to serve the cake and the pastries, and since they weren’t having the event in a traditional event space, I also had to provide the staff. I had no idea how to staff something like that. I thought one extra person would be enough — very, very, very naive.
On the day of the event, my assistant and I drove a van 45 minutes from the bakery to a private estate where there is a glass tent in the middle of a field and lines of trucks and vans and fire trucks and construction generators. So I walk in, and the tent is 100 degrees inside because it’s a glass tent in June, and the sun is beating through, and they can’t get the air-conditioning to work. I’m supposed to put this seven-tier cake on a tree stump in the middle of the room, but I can’t do that, and I have to unload thousands of pastries and ice cream sandwiches. So I leave the van running with the air-conditioning on while they try to fix the air-conditioning inside the tent.
The dessert was supposed to be at the front of the tent right when people walked in from the ceremony. Eventually, they bring out the cake table, which is three huge slabs of wood. But the person who cut the slabs of wood did not think about a cake going on it, so there was a half inch step in the center of it where the chainsaw had dipped. I had to find someone to break pieces of wood for me to use as a shim underneath this seven-tier wedding cake in the middle of the room.
We finally get everything set up and the videographer is coming to take before-shots of what the space looks like, and they lay down their pipe for the steady cam to get a smooth shot, and she completely knocks over two tables full of dessert — mini pavlova, mini lemon bars, cheesecake, macarons, crazy amounts of pastry all over the ground — 10 minutes before guests are arriving in the middle of the entrance. I’m running around trying to figure out what to do. I find folding tables and tablecloths. I don’t clean up anything. I just put the tables on top of the pastry and put the tablecloths on top, and I have hundreds of extra pastries because I’m supposed to be refilling it all night. The trolleys open, and it’s 300 rich white people who act like they have never eaten in their lives. They’re just double-fisting all the pastries, taking bites of one thing and putting it down on the table. My assistant and I are running around trying to clean up and make the place look nice because we’re also supposed to be serving this.
The bride and groom come in, and they announce it’s time to cut the wedding cake. They turn all the lights out and they cut the wedding cake, and then they announce there’s a special surprise and everyone should go outside, and there’s a fireworks display. At that point, I’m supposed to walk this seven-tier cake through the whole dance floor setup to a back room to cut the cake, plate it, so that everyone can eat it. But they had shut the lights off so everyone could see the fireworks. So I am cutting a wedding cake to the light of fireworks, to the sound of an incredibly drunk wedding band singing “Baby, You’re a Firework.” I’m cutting the cake, we’re putting it on plates, my assistant is putting it on a giant tray, and there are people just waiting at the door for slices of cake. He comes back five seconds later and is like, “I need more.” For an hour and a half, I’m cutting the cake. These people were ravenous. Finally, we’re basically done. We’ve been working for 72 hours, and it’s time to clean up. The party’s supposed to be over at one, and the band is like, “We’ll do one more!” They do one more 10 more times, and we can’t leave until the party’s over.
When we can finally leave, I send my assistant to go get the van, which we had to park really far away because we couldn’t ruin the aesthetic of the field, and he cannot find the keys. I call my boss, and he said he doesn’t have keys to that van and it’s three in the morning and he can’t come get us. So I call my dad, and I immediately start crying. I tell him I’m stuck, I don’t know where I am, can you please get me? I give him very little information about where I am, and he’s like, “I think I know where you are,” and 15 minutes later I see him coming down this private drive. My dad is a plumber, and it turns out he had worked on the house before. He drove me and my assistant 45 minutes back to the bakery.
At every single turn, there was a new disaster, but no one had any idea that everything kept going wrong, and that was the craziest part to me.
A dinner of bread and salad
Athena Hays, photographer and wedding planner, Empiria Studios
I was working as the photographer at a venue that had two venues within the same building. That night they were both fully booked, and both dinners were at the same time with the same caterer. Not only did it take two hours to get everyone served, but they also ran out of food for all the guests by the end of the two hours. As vendors, we just didn’t get food, and I’m pretty sure the guests just got offered extra bread and salad.
“You can’t tell me what to do”
Jenn de la Vega, caterer
This wedding was for a couple of filmmaker friends of mine, and they ran the event sort of like a film set. We were doing it at an Airbnb in Oregon. The prep went fine; it was really special. The bride’s grandfather caught the salmon for dinner. We did research about local Portland food. I got all this cheese sourced locally. It was great. The wedding planner, though, was a little out of sorts. I had heard from other people that she had worked a wedding the night before. I understand taking on lots of clients at the same time, but she seemed really tired and kept forgetting stuff.
This is a remote Airbnb, and there is barely any cell service and the property is large. The entire dinner table is maybe 30 feet away down a winding dirt driveway. We set a table for 100 on this curvy road. All of the guests had to be shuttled in, and there were three different cities around 15 to 20 minutes away where guests could be picked up. There was a schedule, and in the confusion of everything the planner somehow redirected one of the shuttles and missed maybe 25 people. The time for the ceremony to start passes, and the bride refuses to leave her room until all of the guests are on-site. I totally get it; you want your friends who flew in from all over the place to be there. But the delay ended up putting us back an hour and a half, which is disastrous for a caterer. I had already staged the appetizers in this beautiful forest. There was this little glass house for the bartenders to sit in, and they had pre-poured all this wine. And we were just standing there like, “Oh crap. Cover the food.” It’s not hot, but people have been sitting for a long time and they don’t have any water. So we started bringing water and pitchers of beer. Some of the older folks started getting anxious and started walking around. By the time the new shuttle came, it was like herding cats. We had to shoo people back to the area. The ceremony is beautiful. It’s amazing. But there’s a handful of us who are pissed with the wedding planner.
Dinner starts happening, and it’s a hurry-up-and-wait situation. When you’re catering, sometimes things are 10 minutes late because of the ceremony, the vows are a little longer or it’s a little shorter; you just have to be ready to go. We were ready to go for an hour and a half, and we made the mistake of relaxing a little bit, so we had to rush and get everything out to this very long driveway, and I couldn’t find the bartenders. I had to go through this field to find the bartenders, and I was like, “Why aren’t you helping bring the food out? I thought this was on the agenda that I gave you.” And they were like, “Sorry, the wedding planner yelled at us and told us to start pouring wine for people.”
We only had 45 minutes to do this dinner ’cause we’re so behind. We still want to stay on schedule for everything else. We’re rushing, and we can’t find the planner anywhere and we have to coordinate when the food comes out for the speeches. I go to get something from the Airbnb house, and she is just on a stool with a glass of wine at the house. And I’m like, “What are you doing in here? The event is happening.” And she’s just like, “You can’t tell me what to do.”
I continued cranking out all this food, but when the ceremony was over, these people were ravenous. Every single platter of appetizers was basically licked clean. I wasn’t moving fast enough to bring all the food out, and people were just grabbing at the servers before the server even set the plate down. And the bride and groom didn’t get everything, which is so heartbreaking to me.
At the end of the night, we had to disassemble the entire 100-person table for cars to get out and to get vendors out. The guests are piling into shuttles while the rest of us are screaming and running and putting things away, and then as we try to sort the glassware from two different rental companies, it starts to pour rain. Thank goodness we were staying there on-site with everybody and that we’re friends because we did get to end the night in the Jacuzzi, complaining.
The bridesmaids were serving food
Xochitl Gonzalez, author of Olga Dies Dreaming and former wedding planner
My worst wedding food story happened at my own wedding, and I was so mortified because I was a wedding planner at the time. (I’m not married anymore.) The caterer basically was a sexist pig, and even though I owned my own wedding planning business and I had been in events before that, he would defer to my husband-to-be for everything. I told him I wanted a certain number of waiters to serve the buffet and clean up everything, and he looked at my husband-to-be and goes, “You don’t need that many waiters. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” In front of me.
But my husband-to-be was Caribbean and I’m Puerto Rican-Mexican, so we were going to do this Caribbean-Puerto Rican jerk chicken and all this other specific food, so I didn’t really have a ton of choices; otherwise I probably would have fired him on the spot. I was also 27. I told the caterer, “We’ll pay for that many waiters,” and he was like, “She’s wasting money.” He was talking about me like I wasn’t there, and then he ended up showing up with whatever amount of waiters he thought were necessary, but he forgot the chafing dishes for the buffet, so there was no way to keep the food hot or display it. All of my bridesmaids ended up having to plate meals and serve them. My bridesmaids were serving food. It was awful. And this haunting feeling told me this was a terrible omen for my marriage, and I was right.
Ria Osborne is a Brooklyn-based food photographer by way of London.
Liberty Fennell is a London-born, New York City-based food stylist and recipe developer.
Sonny Ross is an illustrator based in Manchester, U.K. They love drawing food as much as cooking it but not as much as eating it. They work across editorial, publishing, textiles and packaging and in their downtime enjoys such hobbies as: sleeping.
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein