The past year has forced all of us to reimagine and reconfigure our vision for our dream wedding. This changed wedding landscape is especially exaggerated and noticeable when it comes to the South Asian wedding community.
Traditionally, South Asian weddings are elaborate, multi-day events with a very large guest list. With over 60,000 square feet of versatile event space, the The JW Marriott Parq Vancouver has become a hot-spot for South Asian couples looking to tie the knot in a modern, elegant setting.
Pre-Covid, the JW Marriott Parq Vancouver hosted South Asian weddings with up to 870 guests. However, with new pandemic health restrictions in place, both the hotel and couples have had to rethink their approach, opting instead for more intimate nuptials. “A couple originally planning for 125 can scale down to 50 by making some alterations without it being too drastic. However, for Indian weddings it’s a huge change,” says Jorin McSween, JW Marriott Parq’s Catering Executive.
Chef Kunal, the executive JW Marriott Parq is the reason why a lot of South Asian couples flock to the JW Marriott Parq as opposed to traditional venues. His creative and innovative approach to food is why JW Marriott Parq has been able to pivot towards wedding experiences that are both uniquely South Asian and pandemic friendly.
Born and raised in Pune, India, Chef Kunal grew up in a culture where every milestone is celebrated with a homemade feast. With humble beginnings, Chef Kunal has now become a sought-after expert in South Asian wedding cuisine. With a reputation for consistently delivering unforgettable, thoughtful reception menus, Chef Kunal has applied the same culinary ingenuity when reimagining the South Asian weddings.
A touchless buffet experience.
Traditionally, a South Asian wedding features dishes that are shared family style — something that’s just not advised during the Covid-19 pandemic. The solution: a touchless serving experience that allows the food to really shine.
Wedding receptions are now equipped with an elegant buffet with a dedicated chef behind a protective barrier and individually portioned dishes. “We recently did a 50 person wedding with 15 different things on the menu. Each item was individually plated with really nice garnishes,” says Chef Kunal.
While this setup may not be what guests originally envisioned for their celebration, Jorin McSween, JW Marriott Parq’s Catering Executive, says the buffet line becomes part of the wedding decor and encourages the chefs to get creative as possible with design and plating. “Especially right now because there’s a reduced guest count you have all this space, so it’s so nice for that to be a spectacle and a piece of art — just as our food is a huge part of our presentation,” says McSween.
Chef Kunal agrees that the new touchless buffet only adds to the dining experience. “Instead of just using a pair of tongs and picking something up and not knowing, you have this chef right in front of you that knows exactly what they’re talking about. They can enhance your experience by explaining it,” he says.
While they were nervous at first, the response to the new buffet experience has been very positive. “People really like this touchless experience where the only thing they’re touching is their plate,” says Chef Kunal.
Inspired food that blends traditions.
It also doesn’t hurt that the food being served is Chef Kunal’s signature sublime take on South Asian flavours with a West coast twist.
Chef Kunal’s recipes are inspired by childhood memories and a love for street food. “Growing up, I was a foodie guy. I’d save my pocket money to go try different things on the street. So, that’s how my journey started. I loved street food. I’d try different varieties and different flavors together,” says Chef Kunal.
After formal training in India, he moved to Canada. “I started recollecting all of those flavours. I needed those flavours and I wanted to know how to incorporate them into my own cuisine. That’s how it all started,” he says.
Having never worked in an Indian kitchen before, Chef Kunal brings his French and Western cuisine background to his wedding banquets, creating fresh and artful takes on classic South Asian favorites.
Think: mango rice pudding creme brulee, vegan jackfruit biryani and spiced scallops tartare with Indian spices (mustard seed, cumin, mango, curry leaf, yellow chilli), cilantro, lime, apple achar topped with locally sourced Northern Divine caviar, edible gold leaf and flower petals. As Chef Kunal shares, “it all works perfectly together,” (having tried the dish during my visit to the JW Marriott, I can attest that yes, it does).
Even before Covid-19, Chef Kunal says he was “constantly innovating and coming up with small touches to surprise the guest on arrival.”
As a result, Chef Kunal’s wedding spreads aren’t traditional Indian cuisine. While there are some venues in the Vancouver area that do specialize in traditional Indian wedding banquets, the JW Marriott aren’t one of them — nor are they trying to be. “Whatever I do at Indian weddings I don’t call it purely authentic, I call it modern and progressive cuisine,” he says.
This willingness to merge old with new speaks to the food culture of Vancouver — a city known for its fusion and Pacific Rim influence. This modern approach is also part of the appeal of the JW Marriott Parq. “I don’t want to serve you butter chicken that you can get anywhere. I will try and create something really amazing like whiskey maple butter chicken,” says Chef Kunal.
He says it all comes down to asking the couple, “what traditions are you keeping and which new elements are you incorporating?”
For example, “you might be having a traditional Indian wedding with traditional Indian food but you might want ice cream for dessert. We want to help add those customized touches that speak to who you are as a person,” he says.
This could involve recreating a favourite dish from afar, designing an entirely vegan menu or adding a fun, unexpected element like a poutine bar.
Telling family stories through food.
“So much of Indian food is driven by family memories,” says Chef Kunal. The way he sees it, he’s working to recreate someone’s family memories while painting a whole new picture of an experience they’ve never had before.
“Indian weddings — there are a lot of people involved — mom, grandmas, aunties — and everyone has their own ideas. So, it gets very tricky to make decisions,” explains Chef Kunal.
His approach involves working with families to ensure signature dishes are represented while also asking the bride and groom what will make the experience unforgettable for them. “I think everyone should walk away beaming from something,” he says.
Whether that’s a late night food station dedicated to macaroni and cheese waffles (the cult favorite dish from The Viktor restaurant) or watching Grandma’s smile as she tastes the first bite of maple butter chicken, it’s clear that Chef Kunal knows how to please a crowd.
“People are upset that they can’t have the wedding they wanted but in some ways I think they’re having a better wedding,” says Chef Kunal.
Simone Paget is a food, travel and lifestyle writer based on the West Coast of Canada. She’s a nationally syndicated sex and relationship columnist for the Toronto Sun and the author of the blog SkinnyDip.ca. Her work has appeared in/on publications such as The Apartment Therapy, Chowhound, and the Washington Post.