It’s seven in the morning and I’ve just stepped out of the Dorchester hotel and into one of several waiting people-carriers, which weave off through the stodgy London traffic. I am getting a taste of life not as a jet-setting mogul or pap-dodging celebrity, but a wedding planner. In the convoy are ten other nuptial students, all under the week-long tutelage of Mark Niemierko, one of the capital’s most exclusive planners. Today we’re doing flowers and cakes, but Mark dispenses knowledge on all aspects of the task, from invitation stationery to post-reception fireworks. For some reason, I am the only man on the course.
We spend the morning with Rob Van Helden. He is Elton John’s florist, so not the sort you go to for a bunch of daffodils. He takes us on a dawn walk through New Covent Garden flower market, where it’s not just the choice of flowers that’s overwhelming; there are vases ranging in size from eggcups to escape pods. There are also “decorative options”: plinths, candle-holders, storm lanterns, painted sea-shells, polished conchs, corals, pebbles…One minute these seem extraneous, the next indispensable. I am experiencing the early symptoms of wedding brain-freeze.
My brief would be to guide and advise my clients. But they may understandably overreact to the pressure of the event and I start to think a grounding in the basics of conflict resolution might be advantageous. Also, how do you plan your first wedding professionally? I imagine that it’s a career like hairdressing, tattooing, surgery and flying helicopters: no one wants to hear “You’re my first. Wish me luck!”
Many of my fellow prospective planners say they are drawn to the job because they so enjoyed planning their own weddings that they want to keep going. I can’t say there was a post-honeymoon planning-shaped hole in my life; but neither was I the monstrous groom moaning that his fiancée wants to talk about napkins when he’d rather be in a strip club with his mates. In fact, it was me who came up with the money-saving move much copied in our social circle: replace the DJ with an iPod and a home-made playlist. Nonetheless, doubts about my suitability for the task start to swirl around me like confetti in a March wind.
If I feel stumped by the choice of flowers and vases, how would I cope helping with the single most important decision, the dress? I find it stressful enough when my wife asks me to choose between two skirts. My standard response of “Yes. No. What do you want me to say?” might not soothe a woman struggling with the simultaneous need to look radiant, host a massive party and make a set of life-changing vows.
Luckily, the afternoon is devoted to acquiring a concrete skill. I am taken to meet Peggy Porschen, maker of fabulous, multi-tiered wedding cakes. Peggy is to teach me the basics of cake decoration.
I casually suggest banging out a couple of roses. “Each rose has 60 petals and takes a chef qualified in sugarcraft about an hour to complete,” she replies. Instead, I am allowed to do “decorative dots”. In wedding-planning terms this is the smallest contribution a person can make, short of licking envelopes.
Squeezing an icing bag with my right hand while using the left to hold the tip at 90 degrees, I apply a series of increasingly spherical dots to a display cake. Impressed with my dot technique, Peggy next allows me to craft a simple pink flower. Using a pallet knife, I mix a tiny amount of food-colouring paste into some icing on a tray; I feel like a cross between a plasterer and a painter. Then, using an icing bag with an oval-holed nozzle, I pipe a wide ribbon of icing onto the head of something called a flower nail—essentially a large tack that you use as support. By slowly rotating the nail while making a series of heart-like shapes, I am able to produce wonky “petals”. After two hours, I have produced three passable flowers.
Wedding planning, it seems, is a profession that can only be learnt on the job. Mark Niemierko deals with couples who have six-figure sums to spend on their happy day; he knows the leading dress-designers, cake-makers and florists in London. Even with a natural bent, it’ll take more than a day to make inroads to his rarified circles. And at the rate I’m going, by the time the cake’s decorated most couples will have got a divorce. Maybe my greatest contribution to weddings will remain that playlist. If you think your iPod can handle “Will’s and Anne’s Dancefloor Smash”, you know who to call.