Caterer Kate Hays serves up delicious weddings
Some spouses-to-be agonize over gowns and guest lists. Others worry about the weather. But for hard-core foodies - who want their wedding to taste as good as it looks - choosing a caterer is key.
That's why Lauren-Glenn Davitian, executive director of CCTV Center for Media and Democracy, hired Kate Hays, chef-owner of Shelburne's Dish Catering, when she got married in 1999. "She is really committed to quality," Davitian says. "If the food's not good at a wedding, people aren't going to have a good time; it doesn't matter how in love the bride and groom are. She is a total pro."
Although Hays and her staff cater corporate events and other kinds of parties, she estimates that 70 percent of her business is of the nuptial variety. "Working on weddings is the bread and butter of my business, no pun intended," she says. Hays also helps out occasionally in the kitchen at Burlington's Penny Cluse Café.  "In a certain sense," owner Charles Reeves says of Hays, "she's the premium wedding caterer in the area right now."
Hays grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, and worked in the Boston restaurant industry before moving to Vermont in 1986. She was the head chef at Burlington's Daily Planet  when the restaurant was serving the city's most adventurous food. Nine years later, Hays joined forces with Sandy Morris - "an absolutely brilliant chef," says Hays - and started a catering company called Global Bite. When Morris left the company to spend more time with her children, Hays continued catering under the Global Bite name, working with her then-husband, Charlie Hays. When the couple divorced, about three years ago, he kept Global Bite and Kate started Dish Catering.
While Global Bite was, well, global in its focus, the emphasis at Dish is on the local. "There are certain ethnicities that everybody loves, like Mediterranean or Asian," Hays points out, "so we'll still do ethnic." But "now it's much more about using local growers." Another shift: "I was just all about upping the level of professionalism and elegance," she says.
Hays can "write a menu that is so much more interesting than anything else you see out in the catering world," says Reeves. "The breadth of what she can do is amazing. She just has a sense of the way things should be."
You can see Hays' concern for quality in her menu suggestions, where fresh ideas trump food clichés. She offers lots of salmon dishes - obligatory in a state full of folks who won't eat red meat - but with out-of-the-ordinary preparations: Salmon in rice paper with Asian fish mousse and spicy miso dressing; salmon with lemon confit and kalamata olives; and salmon with champagne-chive cream sauce are just a few of her offerings. She likes to prepare chicken, which can often be bland, with a sauce made from leeks and chanterelle mushrooms, provided they're in season. Another favorite is chicken Provençal, a gutsy dish made with garlic, olives and tomatoes.
Hays can also come up with finger-licking, down-home delights. "I can do really sophisticated food and that scares a lot of people," says Hays, "but that's not to say that I can't do buffalo chicken breast with succotash slaw." She cites a "totally over-the-top" Memphis barbecue she pulled off at the Rusty Nail  in Stowe last summer. "It was a huge spread of ribs, smoked brisket, jalapeno hush puppies, vinegared slow-cooked green beans, mashed potatoes, baked beans, glazed sweet potatoes, cornbread, biscuits . . . That was very informal and just fun." Another casual affair took place on a horse farm in Northfield. The parking lot was full of Chevy trucks, and all of the guests were "cowboys," she quips.
The work at Dish Catering doesn't stop at the kitchen door - it's a "full service," operation. This means that Hays can help with many other aspects of a wedding or civil-union ceremony. "I'm a control freak, so I want to make sure every little thing is covered," she says. After years in the biz, Hays claims to know pretty much every wedding or civil-union service provider around. She can help point couples toward the right photographer, florist or musician. As far as funds go, Hays admits that "it's easier to work with a client who has endless supplies of money. But I like to think of myself as flexible to work with a client who doesn't have a great deal of money and make it work for them."
Mara Coven and Laurie Kahn hired Hays for a house party last December. Kahn says she "would never throw another party without Kate," whom she describes as, "flawless, charming, graceful and warm. The team she brought to our house was so seamless in becoming part of the party without being intrusive."
Hays didn't just assist with the rentals for the party. She also worked with Coven and Kahn to make sure that every food item "was complementary in terms of texture, color and the weight of the food." The best part of working with Hays, Kahn says, is the "Kate-twist" that she puts on each idea. For example, Kahn insisted on coconut cupcakes as a dessert. "Instead of just making coconut cupcakes, she made a variety of six different kinds of teeny tiny cupcakes that you could just pop into your mouth. Color-wise, it was spectacular." She concludes, "I've been to other people's catered affairs and they're nice, but for me, there's no one else in the world."
Some quirky aspects of catering in Vermont make it harder to pull off parties easily and breezily. Since only a few indoor venues in the area allow independent caterers - many places have their own food-service providers and can be quite expensive - lots of ceremonies in the state are held outdoors. That means Vermont's notoriously fickle weather becomes a factor. Part of Davitian's wedding celebration took place outdoors on a rainy day in North Hero, but that didn't stop Hays and her team from turning out exquisite Middle Eastern cuisine. "I can still see it all going by in front of my eyes," says Davitian. "It was inventive, fresh, well-presented and excellent."
At outdoor venues, the party planner's most important tools, "smoke and mirrors," are especially handy, says Hays. Tents can be tricked out with parquet floors, interior draping or couches and easy chairs, depending on the sort of ambiance a client is after. Perfect lighting and gorgeous décor can offset weather that's drab or even rainy. "We're lucky to have some great tent people in the state," Hays says. Even so, she adds, "the rentals are really the most complicated part."
This doesn't mean the cooking is simple. "You can be a brilliant chef, but if you can be a brilliant chef and remember every detail and then do it in a field in a tent, it's a different thing," she suggests. Turning out high-quality food in the middle of a meadow means creating a "field kitchen," as Hays terms it. This can include anything from refrigerators to ovens to fryolaters. The trick is having "a kitchen that can generate the menu that you've chosen," she explains. Also key: "Making sure you have everything to serve it with, down to the demitasse spoons."
It's easy to see the potential for drama. "There was the time I was in the middle of nowhere in the Northeast Kingdom and the hookups for the propane had just been switched over and nothing worked," Hays remembers.
Another challenge presented itself last summer. "It was raining so hard that I couldn't use my grill or my griddle," Hays says. "You can't put those under the tarp or awning. I did have a convection oven and managed to pull off a party for 100 in the rain with one convection oven." How does a caterer cope? Hays points out, "You've got to have a back-up plan, be flexible, be unflappable - and you can't let anybody know anything's going wrong."
"She visualizes an event before she goes into it," Reeves suggests. "She's really diligent about it."
"Aggressive staffing" is one of Hays' secrets to pulling off perfect parties. Between the kitchen staff, the floor manager and the servers, Hays will often bring 25 to 30 people along when doing a formal, plated dinner. For more casual affairs - buffets or cocktail-themed parties, say - the staff will be a lot smaller and the labor charge drastically reduced. Most of the people Hays hires have lots of catering experience. "My average server has been working with me for seven years," she boasts.
Is it difficult for someone who's divorced to spend so much time at other people's weddings? Not for Hays. "I'm catering my divorce lawyer's wedding," she remarks dryly. And Hays is still friends with her ex. "Sometimes I take him with me on jobs," she says. In any case, Hays enjoys weddings. "They're really fun to do because you really build a relationship and a bond with the client," she says. "When a bride and a groom can really convey who they are at their wedding, that is magic."