Forty-eight hours before their wedding, Claudia Fleming and Gerry Hayden were in the kitchen simmering apricots, marinating anchovies, and mixing dough. Unusual activities for a bride and groom just before their wedding? Perhaps, but for Claudia, the pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern in New York City and Gerry, the executive chef at Aureole, also in New York City, catering their own wedding came as naturally as falling in love.
Not surprisingly, food has always been a major part of their relationship, ever since they met in 1990. That was the year Gerry hired Claudia to be the pastry assistant at Tribeca Grill, where he was the sous chef. "I liked her right off the bat," says Gerry, "but she had a boyfriend, and I was her boss, so I knew that at that point a relationship was off limits." So he settled for a friendship. When they both moved on to other restaurants, he continued to see Claudia at food-related events. "I was always looking for a way to ask her out," says Gerry, "but the opportunity never presented itself."
Finally, eight years later, it did. "We were at an awards ceremony," says Claudia, "and Gerry and I were talking about restaurants we wanted to go to. He mentioned Jean-Georges, a restaurant that was getting a lot of attention at the time, and I said 'I'll go with you.' But it took him a year to call me. I think we were both a little nervous about ruining the friendship."
That one dinner led to another and then a third, but it was still unclear to Claudia whether these were friendly get-togethers, or dates. And then things changed. "I know it sounds like a clich," Claudia admits, "but I still wasn't sure what kind of relationship I wanted until he kissed me. It was so sweet and perfect that I really started to fall for him." They spent that summer courting on Long Island, where Gerry was working and Claudia had rented a summer property. Each time they got together, the two would bring delicacies with which to woo the other: oysters or lobster from Gerry, shortbread cookies from Claudia.
When Gerry proposed a year and a half later, he did it over an extravagant meal. It was at Les Crayeres, the restaurant of a beautiful and secluded chateaux in the Champagne region of France. "Proposing in Champagne added to the romance," says Gerry, "I got down on one knee after the lobster ravioli with sweetbreads, and Claudia started to cry." Eight months later, the couple was married on Long Island, where they'd both grown up and where they'd fallen in love. They chose the first place they looked at for the ceremony and reception, Wolffer Estate, a winery in Sagaponack. "We knew it was perfect right away," Claudia recalls, "we had scheduled five appointments that day, but after visiting Wolffer we cancelled all the others."
Together, they made the meal of a lifetime, serving a casual Mediterranean feast featuring the bold, bright flavors they both love. There were jewel-like passed hors d'oeuvres followed by a family-style meal culminating in white platters of fig wood-grilled leg of lamb with rosemary and garlic, and roasted, locally-caught striped bass with a sauce redolent of fresh summer herbs. Wedding cake, and petit-four buffet filled with bite-sized cookies, tarts, and chocolates, ended the evening on the sweetest of notes.
"We wanted the food to be great, but didn't want to have it look like we were showing off," says Claudia, "It was about celebrating our union, and for us, part of that is feeding the people we love."