Tanner & Ella

Around mid-August of last year, I received an email from a young woman named Ella.

“I stumbled on your Skinny Girls and Mayo site and saw that you recently catered a fundraiser at The 1909 in Topanga,” she said. “It just so happens we are getting married at The 1909 next May, and I would love to talk to you.”

A heart-shaped tri tip for Tanner & Ella

A heart-shaped tri tip for Tanner & Ella

She and her fiancé, Tanner, were having no luck finding a caterer they liked — they wanted something sophisticated and “foodie,” yet casual and relaxed. But all the leads they were getting in their price range were disappointing buffets.

I invited them over to talk. I’m not a caterer, I told them — I’m a chef. I sometimes do large gigs, but I tend to do them more like food “events” — sending out small tastes of interesting things, putting food on wooden planks, generally having fun. I don’t have catering equipment or staff. That, they assured me, was exactly what they wanted.

“You’d be introducing an element of danger into your wedding by hiring me,” I warned them.

I generally price myself rather expensively because I like to pick and choose what I do. But I really liked them. I told them I thought I could do something nice in their price range. We agreed, shook hands (I did hug the lovely Ella) and it was on.

Me and my team at the oven

Me and my team at the oven

So next came the planning of the menu. The good news was, we had nine months until showtime. Their initial ideas included hummus or perhaps stuffed grape leaves in honor of Tanner’s Middle Eastern heritage, pizzas from the wood-burning oven, two salad options and three pastas “with a variety of sauces and meatballs.” But according to Ella, they were open to whatever we could do on their budget.

Over the coming weeks and months, the menu evolved: there would a cheese and charcuterie table and passed appetizers for the cocktail hour. We moved the pizzas from dinner to the cocktail segment, so we could clear room at dinner for Tuscan-style grilled tri tips, planked salmon with garlic and Spanish spices, finger Caesar salads and a pasta with fennel and white beans.

Cheese and charcuterie

Cheese and charcuterie

Tanner (and Ella, now) is a Boyajian. I had a friend in high school who was a Boyajian — Paul, who died recently. Boyajian is a common Armenian name. And though Tanner does not look it, he is of Armenian descent. So rather than hummus or grape leaves, I decided to make a basturma, which I would serve as an appetizer — cut thick and rustic, like Iberico jamon, set atop bruschetta.

My friend, Dan Edens, who is also of Armenian descent on his mother’s side, introduced me to this Armenian cured meat — think of an Italian bresaola coated with eastern spices. I did some research, bought a beef loin, large quantities of paprika and fenugreek, and began curing the basturma a full six weeks before the event, checking on it regularly like a doting Armenian mother.

The basturma

The basturma, sliced and ready

It seemed as if the wedding would never come. But then it did. The week before, I fielded calls from Jeanette the Wedding Planner, tried to secure commitments from noncommittal potential servers, shopped frantically and filled friends’ freezers with meat (not a caterer, remember…) And then it was the day. I hadn’t slept well the night before, making sure I had every angle and potential pitfall covered so that 160 people — and most importantly the bride and groom — would be happy and well fed. Yes, I had done large events before, but this was someone’s wedding — the stakes were high. And I never before had to hit such specific marks:

Jeanette: “Guests will begin arriving at 3:30. Ceremony will begin at 4, you can set the cheese table up discreetly while the ceremony is taking place. Cocktail and appetizer hour will be 4:30 to 5:30, then guests will sit for dinner. At 7, we will go upstairs for dancing.”

How could anything go wrong with these two guys helping? Heroes.

How could anything go wrong with these two guys helping? #heroes.

5:30 a.m. I was awake, chopping garlic, butterflying tri tips, shaping pizza doughs and boiling water.

I had planned to be at the venue at 2 p.m. for the 4 p.m. wedding start time. It was nearly 3, my phone was ringing off the hook with Jeaneatte’s number, and I was still cooking. And then in my haste, I cut the tip of my thumb off.

“I’m f%@#ed,” I said to myself.

A few minutes and a pile of bandage wrappers scattered across the bathroom counter later, I was in the car: halfway to the venue, forgot my cutting boards and the flour for the pizzas. Turn around, add 10 minutes to my lateness. Guests were already arriving when I got there, and I tried to be discreet backing up to the door and carrying in my trays of tri tip and bags of salmon.

I saw Tanner milling about, looking nervous. “Hey Sean,” he said, hugging me. “How did the basturma turn out?” I assured him it was excellent. “Usually when I’m nervous I can’t eat. But I’m so excited for that basturma!” 

Bobby Mahaffey assessing the napkin situation

Bobby Mahaffey assessing the napkin situation

Pre-preparations were going smoothly. But Jeanette had a surprise for me:

“Did you bring any napkins!?” she asked hopefully.

My face went blank. I was not supposed to bring any. I was told it was handled.

“I was told that too, but there are no napkins!” She looked dejected.

“Do you want me to send someone to get some?” I offered, and her face immediately brightened. Not that I had a lot of extra staff and time to spare… But as it turned out, we were able to get the napkins there without sacrificing people or time.

Wedding ceremony, voyeur's perspective

Wedding ceremony, voyeur’s perspective

I took a moment from my frenetic runnings about to watch the ceremony from a distance. The wedding party descended the outdoor amphitheater to an instrumental version of Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zero’s “Home.” Then, in one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, Ella appeared on the hill, and walked herself down to Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash singing “Girl from the North Country.” Pal Bob pointed out, in a bit of cosmic symmetry, that it was in fact Bob Dylan’s birthday.

An announcement for cocktail hour meant showtime for us. I left the upstairs kitchen, bruschetta and basturma in pal Peri’s able hands while I went down to the oven. The pizzas were gone before they reached the second tier of revelers, and we strategized ways to bypass the handful of determined pizza hawks and get some to the wedding’s other hundred and fifty or so guests.

Ascending from the oven to the kitchen upstairs to grab something, I found Tanner and Ella alone, laughing together on a back patio. An excellent sign. I gave them hugs and congratulated them, they thanked me for everything and complimented me on the basturma. All that was left was dinner.

Tanner & Ella

Tanner & Ella

At some point during the dinner service, the groom’s father came to talk to me. He was a large, jovial man with a silver goatee and a half finished bottle of bourbon. He thanked and congratulated me, I thanked and congratulated him. I told him I would shake his hand, but mine was caked with flour, tomato sauce and salmon oil.

“I’m good with that,” he said, holding out his hand.

By 6:40, we were done. Everyone was happy and fed, retiring ahead of schedule to the upstairs for dancing, complimenting us as they passed by. Jeanette looked relieved. Don Schneider collected a couple unfinished wine bottles and we poured ourselves glasses — a toast to Tanner and Ella, and a toast to our own success. And then the bride and groom dropped by the oven. Ella hugged every one of my staff.

“Is there any of that basturma leftover?” Tanner asked.

Fortunately there was — a whole bunch, in fact — an appropriate gift from a non-caterer to help send his clients on their way out into the world properly.

*    *    *

Heart-shaped Tuscan tri tip
serves 6 – 8

2-3 lb. tri-tip, trimmed
1 tbsp. garlic powder
1 tbsp. salt
1 tsp. freshly ground pepper
2 large garlic cloves, grated or finely chopped
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Malden sea salt

I can’t guarantee your tri tip will look like a heart. But if you buy the right shape — roughly like a teardrop or rounded triangle — it should. About 10 of the 15 I cooked were heart-shaped. (Not that it mattered, since I served them sliced off the board.)

Carefully butterfly out the tri tip. Cut through the thick wide end, slicing lengthwise down toward the thin end, leaving about 1 inch on the opposite side uncut. Open the tri tip and flatten it out into one large piece of steak.

Sprinkle with 1/2 tbsp. salt, wrap with several layers of paper towels and place in the fridge for at least 4 hours and up to overnight.

Heat a grill to high flame. Combine garlic powder, 1/2 tbsp. salt and ground pepper, and sprinkle all over tri tip. Place on the grill.

While the tri tip is cooking, spread garlic over a large cutting board. Drizzle olive oil over garlic, and sprinkle with Maldon salt.

Cook tri tip about 3-4 minutes per side, until desired doneness. (Watch for fire flare ups.) Remove from heat and place on oiled cutting board. Slice across the grain into 1/2-inch slices, sluice with the cutting board juices, oil and garlic, and serve.

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28 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jo Ann Brown-Scott
    May 29, 2015 @ 00:20:01

    Love all of this but how is your thumb? How much is gone? Growing back?

    Reply

  2. timoirish34
    May 29, 2015 @ 01:05:47

    What a brilliant tale. This union sounds like a triumph. It’s been my experience that few marriages work out–and even fewer weddings. The basturma takes me back to my misspent youth in East Hollywood. I do miss the Armenian markets…

    Reply

    • scolgin
      May 29, 2015 @ 15:29:41

      You channeled the very soul of Oscar Wilde with your “few marriages and even fewer weddings”, Tim. Bravo. If potential for future happiness can be based on good decisions made in the wedding planning, I’ll give these guys better than average odds. 🙂

      Reply

  3. Cheryl "Cheffie Cooks" Wiser
    May 29, 2015 @ 02:01:35

    Aw…what a guy you are Sean!!!Love this post. Cheryl

    Reply

  4. Ella
    May 29, 2015 @ 02:43:58

    Sean! How fun it was to read the “the making of”. I am going to print this post and put it in my wedding scrapbook. We received so many compliments on the food (and the general dining experience, folks just loved those wood planks). We can’t thank you enough for your kindness. You are as talented a chef as wonderful a person. THANK YOU!

    Reply

    • scolgin
      May 29, 2015 @ 15:31:18

      And you, dear Ella, are as gracious as you are lovely. Wishing you guys all the greatest success in your life together, and I look forward to future Iberico jamons and basturmas together…

      Reply

  5. Maddie
    May 29, 2015 @ 03:58:37

    The food was wonderful! Especially the oven fired pizzas. Also- there was a cheese and charcuterie table??? How did I miss that? All in all it was a very successful meal- exactly what Tanner and Ella deserve!

    Reply

  6. thejameskitchen
    May 29, 2015 @ 05:38:50

    “Sending out small tastes of interesting things” – I could not imagine anything better for a wedding, party or dinner every day! Sounds like a perfect day (congratulations to all), it would be absolutely fabulous if there was the BASTURMA recipe (rub beef with paprika & fenugreek and leave where and how for six weeks, hang, wrap in cloth, air dry?). Please!
    Nicole

    Reply

    • scolgin
      May 29, 2015 @ 15:44:54

      I think you’re supposed to hang it. But I just wrapped it and put it on a rack in the fridge.

      Here’s the cliff notes version:

      Basturma:

      2 – 3 lbs. of lean beef (like loin)
      lots of salt
      1/4 cup paprika
      1/4 cup ground fenugreek
      1 tbsp. ground cumin
      1 tsp. black pepper
      2 large garlic cloves, grated or pressed

      Poke holes in the meat with a fork. Season generously on all sides with salt. Place in a dish and set in the fridge for three days.

      Remove from fridge and soak in cold water for an hour. Dry well with paper towels.

      Wrap in cheesecloth, place on a rack in the fridge, and let dry out for two weeks.

      Mix together garlic, paprika, fenugreek, pepper, cumin, 1/2 cup water and 1 tbsp. salt to make a paste. Rub paste all over meat, wrap in a fresh cheesecloth and place back on the rack in the fridge. Let cure for three additional weeks.

      Remove from cheesecloth, slice thinly and enjoy. 🙂

      Reply

  7. andreathompson2
    May 29, 2015 @ 07:36:48

    I LOVE reading these posts. Your lifestyle is so entertaining to me. I wish I lived closer to you, Les and my beloved nieces and nephew! I’m so happy you could grace that wedding with interesting and delicious food. How awesome that Ella cared enough about good food to seek you out! Sent from Andrea’s iPhone

    >

    Reply

  8. Glenda Boyajian
    May 29, 2015 @ 15:06:16

    Sean, who would have known?!!! I, mother of the groom, can attest to the fact that you and your team did an AMAZING job. Everyone loved the food, it’s presentation, and the way it was served. This article let’s me see and hear several things I “missed” in the excitement of it all. Thank you for accepting this venue and making Tanner and Ella’s day even more special! Can’t wait to try some of Tanner’s leftover basturma 🙂

    Reply

    • scolgin
      May 29, 2015 @ 16:07:34

      What a wonderful day it was, Glenda. Tanner is a great guy, you have gained a jewel of a daughter-in-law, and I am happy to have gained two new friends in Tanner and Ella. Hope you enjoy the leftovers! 🙂

      Reply

  9. Mom
    May 29, 2015 @ 16:56:18

    Boy Sean, I admire your courage, and of course your talent and charm. I’ve whacked off several finger ends.Makes for an interesting hand.

    Reply

  10. Jessamine in PDX
    May 30, 2015 @ 06:55:28

    Sounds like you did wedding food right – I’ve had enough sad buffets to last me a lifetime. Also pizza hawks! It’s always hard trying to get past those first few people that keep picking every platter clean. You needed a big fake distraction to get their attention off the goods.

    Reply

  11. Lori Koefoed
    May 31, 2015 @ 20:46:22

    Awww, so happy to hear everything went well with Tanner and Ella’s wedding (except for your finger, of course!). Wishing them the very best in their life together and cheers to the chef!

    Reply

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  13. Ella
    Jul 18, 2017 @ 18:40:43

    I just happened to Google myself (long story but we had some fraud issues and now I’m a bit paranoid!) but what fun to see this post again and re-read. You were truly a miracle that day and what a wonderful day it was. We still (two years later) get compliments on the food! I continue to be grateful for the generosity and kindness you showed us. I hope you and your family are well!

    Reply

    • scolgin
      Jul 18, 2017 @ 22:44:44

      Ella! A photo from your wedding popped up in my screen recently, and I was wondering how you guys were. Synchronicity! What a wonderful day that was. Hope you guys are well, I’d love to hear how it’s going. We are in Japan right now, but perhaps you guys could pop up for dinner in August or September!! Hugs//s

      Reply

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