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FOOD THAT'S FLAVORFUL and beautiful to behold is essential to events, but when it complements a theme, it's even better. From an authentic Chinese feast to a South of France soiree, three caterers discuss what makes theme menus sizzle.


Inspiration for menu themes can come from many places, even an event venue. That was the case when planner Zarada Gowenlock wanted to design an event to enhance the setting of a company awards dinner for insurance provider Shand Morahan, held at Chicago's Field Museum. With the traveling exhibit “Splendors of China's Forbidden City: The Glorious Reign of Emperor Qianlong” as a backdrop, “It was natural for the food to be Chinese,” explains Mike Nelson, senior sales consultant at Chicago-based Blue Plate, whom Gowenlock turned to for catering.

Gowenlock and Nelson researched authentic Chinese cuisine to complement the decor and entertainment, which included performances by the Shanghai Circus. For appetizers, servers used imported red and black lacquered trays to pass dim sum in small Chinese teacups — “It was like a walking version of the dim sum cart,” Nelson explains. Selections included ha gao — shrimp dumplings with dark brown sauce — and lor buk gah — pan-fried turnip cakes with chile oil. More mainstream options, such as butter lettuce with fried oysters and wasabi sauce and salmon-crab rolls with tartar sauce, were also on the menu. “You can't serve 500 people only authentic dim sum, because there are going to be some people who don't like it, don't understand it,” he says.

For the main course, guests sat at tables covered in custom red satin tablecloths with gold dragon details to dine on “Shanghai surf and turf” — grilled beef tenderloin medallions and lobster tail in truffle sauce, served with sauteed spinach and winter pear-potato croquettes — and Asian eggplant filled with vegetable ratatouille in a pool of roasted tomato and garlic coulis. Green tea ice cream with white chocolate chopsticks, served in frosted martini glasses, was a highlight of the extensive dessert buffet. The effect of continuing the theme through every aspect of the event “was gorgeous,” Nelson says.


At Fresh Horizons Catering in San Antonio, Texas, the company's locale means “Mexican fiestas and Texas hoedowns are very popular,” notes Scarlet Carpenter, director of sales. “Any time people come to Texas, that's what they usually want.” For events with south of the border flair, the company spices things up with chile-rubbed pork tenderloin, honey-cumin chicken empanandas, and smoked chicken and goat cheese tartlets. The Texas hoedown menu features a chuck wagon display of barbecued brisket, chicken and ribs, new potato salad, pinto beans and pecan pie.

Because theme menus are almost always part of larger events, decor also plays a major role in enhancing an event's theme. “We've done Hawaiian luaus where we've had inclement weather and had to move everything inside, but we still had the tropical flowers, leis and Hawaiian print linen, so you still had that atmosphere,” Carpenter explains. “I think carrying the theme through the event — not only with the food and the decor, but also with invitations that state what the guest attire should be — makes it intriguing for the guests.”


Lisa Field, founder of Los Angeles-based Catering by Field, notes that the time of year is a huge influence on the themed menus she creates.

“This summer I've done mainly Mexican and Caribbean — Caribbean was my hot new menu this year,” she says. She names hamburgers topped with pineapple slices, Jamaican jerk chicken with grilled plantains, and mango and papaya salads as her most popular creations. “The menu is very light, very tropical — the colors of the food are very vivid lime greens, oranges and yellows, and it matches the beach party decor I do,” she notes.

Another menu that keyed on a summertime theme was for a birthday party with what Field describes as a “St. Tropez-style, '60s Euro-chic kind of feel.” For the decor, she drew inspiration from the bold prints of fashion designer Emilio Pucci, a favorite of the guest of honor. Guests received invitations backed in pink-toned Pucci-print fabric, which was also used to create custom overlays for the tables. The guests themselves even became part of the decor: “All the guests wore something — a scarf, shoes, a shirt — in a Pucci print,” Field explains. “It was so colorful — it was great.”

The South of France-inspired menu included tray-passed Brie tartlets with walnuts and grape salsa, and crispy filo packets filled with sauteed mushrooms in cream sauce. Buffet stations offered steak and pommes frites (“The same as you would find in a French bistro,” Field says); shrimp pasta with shallots, white wine, leeks, tomatoes and basil; and riz paimpolaise, a traditional French rice dish with artichokes and green beans.

As for her take on doing theme menus, Field says that she likes the challenge they provide. “It's something other than the normal Californian or American cuisine,” she explains. “Sometimes it's the only time people will do something different. Plus, it's fun for us.”


Blue Plate, 312/421-6666; Catering by Field, 310/837-4680; Fresh Horizons Catering, 210/226-5919

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