The Upside of Outside

By Sara Perez Webber

The absence of four walls can spur creativity sky-high

While outdoor events have their downsides—namely, the unpredictable nature of nature—there’s something about being outside that breathes fresh air into a gathering. The three events profiled here made the most of their open-air surroundings, with thoughtful, delicious menus and clever details that made them unforgettable.


Big Sur Wedding

A Taste of Elegance •

For a wedding held at the Paion estate in Big Sur on the Northern California coast, A Taste of Elegance Catering & Events created an elaborate dinner buffet “village” that looked as though it could have organically grown out of the stunning natural surroundings.

“We wanted the village to be a mix of wild and foraged yet with an underlying note of luxury,” says Annie Hobbs, president of A Taste of Elegance. “In creating the overall look, feel and menu, the inspiration was primarily from medieval feasts and the relaxed organic vibe of Big Sur.”

A Taste of Elegance scoured antique fairs to find the rustic wooden tables and vintage serving pieces that helped create the dining “village.”

A Taste of Elegance scoured antique fairs to find the rustic wooden tables and vintage serving pieces that helped create the dining “village.”

To create the menu, the company worked with the couple to find the foods they and their guests most enjoyed. The bride ate mostly a gluten-free/vegan diet, with the occasional fish and cheese, while the groom had one main request: a “traditional porchetta, the kind he had as a kid in Italy,” says Hobbs. A Taste of Elegance came through, serving up an all pork-belly porchetta without the tenderloin center. “As for the rest of the menu, we let our local produce and farmer’s markets be our guides,” says Hobbs. “We wanted to create a very colorful, lush and bountiful menu that represented the area well.”

The individual “vignettes” of the dining village included an heirloom tomato station—local tomatoes seasoned with flaked sea salt and olive oil, with opal, lemon and sweet basil; a farmer’s market station featuring loose layers of sweet potatoes, Romanesco, Brussels sprouts and fairytale eggplant topped with lightly pickled pink beets; additional vegan-friendly stations serving up French lentils with mushrooms, summer succotash, and cauliflower steaks with cranberry beans; a scallops station, where pan-seared sea scallops were served with Meyer lemon, accompanied by forbidden black rice and mushrooms sautéed with chili and thyme; and the porchetta station, where the groom’s requested main course—roasted whole pork bellies rubbed with a fragrant paste of fennel, lemon peel, rosemary, garlic, onions sautéed in Marsala, and bay leaves—took its place of honor atop a 100-year-old pedestal, alongside cracked-pepper crusted filet of beef, served with a green herb relish.

To create the lush, abundant ambience for the feast, Hobbs and her team for months “scoured antique fairs, import shops and flea markets to find the right elements for the overall look and feel,” she says. When guests arrived, they were greeted by an antique claw-foot bathtub overflowing with Italian sodas and waters. The dining village had an organic farm-like feel, with rustic wooden tables and cabinets, vintage cut glass and tarnished silver. In the days leading up to the event, staff members gathered wild fennel, craggy twigs and dried flowers to add to the décor; dried herbs hung from two Jacob’s ladders, with the sea serving as a dramatic backdrop. The final buffet of the day was a whimsical dessert station in lieu of a traditional wedding cake, utilizing pieces from the dinner village with additional tarnished silver trays, cut crystal, repurposed arrangements and a handsome vintage trunk.

The team had just one hour—while cocktails and hors d’oeuvres were being served—to set up the dining village, which was located in the same spot as the ceremony site. With every piece of each vignette color-coded, mapped and photographed, “we used our parking lot for the hardware practice run,” says Hobbs. “Passersby thought we were having a garage sale!” The day before the wedding, a crew of eight did another practice run on site, timing themselves to make sure they could move the furniture and other decor from the top of a slope, where they were hidden, to the bottom, and assemble it all in 45 minutes so the culinary team could have the remaining 15 minutes to set up the food.

The rehearsal and the main event were a resounding success, and A Taste of Elegance recently won a CATIE award for “Best Buffet Presentation and Menu” for their efforts. “This was a true labor of love,” says Hobbs.

Additional vendors:
Burst + Bloom (;
Elegant Events (


County Fair Reception

Viva Bella Events •

Guests attending the welcome reception for a three-day corporate event in Cincinnati stepped into a nostalgic county fair, created by Viva Bella Events. The reception for 1,200 of Matson Money’s investor clients took place in July 2014 at the Horseshoe Casino, a Las Vegas-style gaming establishment.

The “Matson Money County Fair,” in a giant striped tent on the casino lawn, featured custom-built food booths lining the tent’s interior that served “every imaginable classic morsel of country cuisine,” says Dora Manuel, Viva Bella Events’ owner and the event designerGrazing guests could sample fair favorites at eight themed stations, including old-fashioned lemonade, limeade, sodas and crèmes at the Soda Fountain; shaved ice topped with handmade fruit syrups at the Snow Ballz station; foot-long hot dogs, soft pretzels, artisan roasted nuts and kettle corn at The Filling Station; country-style chicken fingers and beer-battered onion rings at the Finger Lickin’ Chicken station; twice-baked potato salad and house-smoked baby back ribs with bourbon barbecue sauce at the Smokin’ Ribs station; build-your-own Angus sliders, shoestring fries and old-fashioned foot-long hot dogs at Matson’s Burgerz and Dogz; fruit salad, cold and crisp sliced watermelon and field greens salad at the Watermelon Patch; and—because what fair would be complete without an array of sweet treats?—churros, fried apple pie a la mode, candied and caramel apples, deep-fried and stuffed house-made cookies, cotton candy, and sweet funnel cake topped with assorted fruit at the Sugar Shack.

The county fair-themed reception included games and dining under a giant striped tent.

The county fair-themed reception included games and dining under a giant striped tent.

The action took place in the center of the tent, where guests could try their hand at old-fashioned carnival games—with oversized stuffed animals as the prizes—including the ring-toss Barrel O’ Monkeys; a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, where attendees tried to land ping-pong balls into a colorful tower of tea cups; and a Clowning Around dart game flanked by two carousel horses. Actors played carnies, dressed for the role in red-and-white striped vests and white pants, baby-blue bowties and flat-top hats. On rustic wooden tables draped with red, white and blue checkered linens, vintage coffee tins and soda bottles held colorful daisies, bright sunflowers, purple irises and lush leafy greenery. A vintage working tractor greeted guests outside the tent and served as a photo op.

The goal was “to take guests back to the past and pour on the nostalgia,” says Manuel. “Every small detail was made to convey old-fashioned hospitality and fun.”

After enjoying the fair, attendees flowed from the tented area to outdoor seating and enjoyed a private performance by the L.A.-based Red Hot Band, followed by a concert from country superstar Darius Rucker. Stilt walkers and jugglers roamed the aisles as guests danced and sang along, and food kiosks offered ice cream sundaes and gourmet nachos. Guests who wanted to stay cool could watch the concert from monitors installed inside the air-conditioned tent. “The whole evening was the perfect kick-off to the conference and created a groundswell of anticipation for the days ahead,” says Manuel.

Additional vendors: Horseshoe Casino (; All Occasions Event Rental (; Yellow Canary Flowers (; Cindy Loon of Loon + Co. (; Showstoppers (; Ambience Events (


Beach Ball Gala

M Catering by Michael’s •

In February, the beach came to the desert with the help of M Catering by Michael’s, which catered a Los Cabos, Mexico-themed event for the Phoenix Children’s Hospital Foundation that took place in a private airplane hangar complex in Scottsdale, Ariz.

It was the first year that the 800-guest Beach Ball, an annual event, was being held outside of a hotel ballroom, so the clients wanted to make a splash. “The co-chairs love Los Cabos on the tip of Baja California, so they selected a Cabo theme for the gala,” says Michael Stavros, director of business development for M Catering, who adds that in lieu of the “same-old filet mignon and sea bass entrée that every other gala in town serves, they wanted a fun Mexican menu—dressed up of course.”

M Catering by Michael’s created a Mexican-inspired menu, including Tarte de Chocolate Mexicano, with crunchy caramel, canola cream, lightly salted caramel sauce, churro nubs and cacao nibs.

M Catering by Michael’s created a Mexican-inspired menu, including Tarte de Chocolate Mexicano, with crunchy caramel, canola cream, lightly salted caramel sauce, churro nubs and cacao nibs.

M Catering by Michael’s rose to the challenge, creating a menu that included such butler-passed hors d’oeuvres as ceviche shooters and chorizo fundido, with an Oaxaca cheese-stuffed mushroom in a corn tortilla “cup”; an “Ensalada de Ensenada,” featuring Romaine spears with cucumber, roasted poblano pico, tortilla dust and ancho Caesar dressing; two entrée choices—La Tierra y el Mar, an achiote-braised chicken thigh stuffed with chorizo and Oaxaca cheese atop black bean puree, paired with citrus-grilled swordfish atop a “Cabo relish” of green beans, olives, hearts of palm and yellow peppers, or the vegan/gluten-free Torta de Frijol Negro, a black bean sofrito cake with roasted tomatillo and avocado coulis, mango habanero salsa and roasted garlic and jalapeño broccolini; and desserts including Tarte de Chocolate Mexicano (with crunchy caramel, canela crema, lightly salted caramel sauce, churro nubs and cacao nibs) and Baya con Crème de Coco Roulade (strawberry-pineapple paleta, lime curd and coconut crumble).

Emphasizing the Cabo theme, bread and butter was replaced with house-made tortilla chips and hand-crafted guacamole, while M Catering’s signature cocktail incorporated Mexican flavors. During the live auction, instead of the customary champagne, trays of top-shelf tequila in Mexican hand-blown shot glasses were delivered to the winning bidders’ tables. The touches enhanced the Cabo-influenced design scheme by Angelic Grove, which included a red carpet lined with giant white hurricane lamps at the entrance. Beach cabanas draped in white sheer fabric billowed in the breeze, and ladies found pashmina wraps serving as both chair-back covers and a parting gift.

In the three weeks leading up to the event, the clients requested a late-night food element, and M Catering came through with Sonoran Hot Dog Lollipops (bacon-wrapped Kobe beef hot dog slices on lollipop sticks, offered with green chile relish); Chicken + Jack Cheese Quesadilla Cones, topped with avocado crema and pico de gallo; and Green Chile Corn Fritters, offered with a dollop of jalapeño honey mousse. On a nearby station, guests could sample Mexican hot chocolate and warm cinnamon-dusted churros, packaged to go in mini paper bags sealed with a Beach Ball logo.

Additional vendor: Angelic Grove (