One of the best ways to increase the success of your next catered event is to have a theme. Problem is, most clients don’t know the ins and outs of getting the most from a caterer for a “themed” event.
If I’ve learned anything after studying under top chefs and catering large formal events at the Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina for almost 20 years, it’s that cooking for hundreds, even thousands, requires a few basic rules.
And if you are attempting to base your menu around a special theme, the challenge can seem daunting.
Take for instance, an event we catered June 17 for the San Diego Zoo called Rendezvous in the Zoo , Ark in the Park. It was a gala fund-raiser for 1,060 guests.
Delicacies that were served included black bean grilled shrimp with coconut ginger whipped yams and mango cilantro sauce; tenderloin of beef and scalloped potatoes with cabernet sauce; and strawberry cheese torte with wood grain wrap, giraffe motif and citrine essence. Catering a formal event of this magnitude requires more than extemporaneous execution.
But with a few commonsense rules , and some patience and planning , a wonderful meal can be presented and a good time can be had by all.
– Tips For Planning
A Themed Event
Whether large or small, certain axioms apply to pulling off a successful event based around a theme.
o Tip No. 1 , Know your limitations.
The first and most obvious tip I can offer is don’t attempt a theme that won’t work. Don’t go to extremes.
Do not necessarily assume your menu has to be part of the ongoing theme. It doesn’t have to be, and I say this from experience because it often doesn’t work. In the past, I’ve tried to accommodate clients , when they’ve absolutely insisted , by preparing unique and downright strange-looking dishes because the client thought “it sounded like a good idea at the time.”
Your goal as a caterer is to make guests feel comfortable. And pink and purple foods are, well … unsettling.
This is not to say that a luau or Caribbean jerk barbecue can’t be pulled off, but if your dishes cannot be readily associated with a theme, don’t do it. It’s as simple as that. Serve a crowd-pleasing meal instead and tie the theme in at the final course by serving a delightful dessert that references the occasion.
– Desserts Can Make
A Good Impression
Desserts allow tremendous leeway. The creative use of baked delicacies, chocolates, sauces, tableware and decorations is your opportunity to wrap up the meal in grand fashion. Dessert time is the right time to leave a wonderful impression on your guests.
o Tip No. 2 , What to serve and what size?
Simply stated, stick with the basics , even when catering with a theme in mind. With regard to the main course, and when serving multitudes, the greatest number of people are comfortable with beef, chicken and fish , in that order.
I’ve found that beef is, by far, the most popular main course, although you’ve probably seen quite a bit of chicken being served at banquets. Chicken is popular because event planners are generally on a budget and I’ve found this to be especially true regarding fund-raisers.
As far as fish and pork are concerned, I’ve found that men , as a dining category , don’t necessarily prefer fish. And pork as an entree may have dietary limitations with regard to religion. Veal is also a tricky choice. Stay away from combination plates only because they don’t present well. Generally, there are too many flavors going on with a combination platter and the sauces tend to mix badly.
Rack of lamb is my favorite main course, but I’d certainly think twice about serving it to 1,000 people. Think of your audience as a whole. What would the group as a whole prefer? If this sounds mundane, read my next tip about how to make your theme-related meals special and memorable.
– Serve Portions For
An Average Appetite
And please, serve normal-sized portions. I’ve never been a fan of “big” food. Remember, like a painting, the plate is the frame which showcases the food. Great artwork doesn’t hang outside of the frame.
One last thing. Expect to prepare 15 to 25 vegetarian meals per 100 served. Today, you simply can’t delete the main course, add some extra vegetables and potatoes, and expect to get away with it. Patrons absolutely will not stand for it. You must prepare a substitute meal that stands on its own and is every bit as spectacular as the others.
o Tip No. 3 , Sauce is king.
I love this topic. My motto is, a meal is not a meal without an excellent sauce. Sauces and their equivalents can be used everywhere. Sauces give life to meals. Exquisite sauces can be used at every course juncture , appetizers, salad (think: creative dressings), entrees, side dishes and desserts. The possibilities are endless.
What makes a great sauce? Reputations have been staked on this subject, but as far as a main course is concerned, think basic, think French. Make your sauces from scratch. A sauce is often a reduction, so use the key ingredients of a reduction, wine and butter. Experiment, beforehand please, and don’t drown the food.
– Service Equally
Important As Meal
o Tip No. 4 , Service reigns supreme.
Service is every bit as important as the meal. The best meal can be rendered unappetizing by poor, inattentive service. Conversely, excellent service can enhance practically any meal.
I’ve always felt waiters should be seen and not heard. The staff is there to serve the meal, fill the wine and water glasses, and replenish items like food and dropped flatware. They are not there to converse with guests about their latest surfing adventures in Costa Rica.
The wait staff is the link between the guests and the kitchen. It’s imperative that the staff understands the menu in-depth and the ingredients that comprise the dishes. For this reason, I always stage a pre-meal session.
The staff needs to be able to communicate the menu details to the curious diner, and to those with allergies to certain foods. Because you are only serving the regular and vegetarian meals, the staff doesn’t necessarily need to sample the offering beforehand, as is customary in restaurants where familiarity with your cuisine is an asset. If deemed appropriate, the staff eats later.
o Tip No. 5 , Take nothing for granted.
Prepare for the invasion of Normandy. If you’ve ever planned a fancy picnic at the beach, you are aware of the need to bring everything imaginable as there are no provisions to obtain forgotten items. Like the beach, many of our catering sites pose problems with regard to lighting, electricity, and water, not to mention the inherent challenge of preparing and keeping warm elaborate meals with dozens of ingredients.
– Use A Checklist
And A Timeline
I use a checklist. With a checklist there are always lemons for the tea, champagne glasses for the toast, and napkin rings for the napkins.
I also calculate a timeline which describes in detail what is going to happen, and precisely when. Leave nothing to chance and take nothing for granted.
If you work with your caterer to follow these basic axioms, you’ll find that catering a “themed” event can be a satisfying experience for you and your guests.
Cornwell has been the director of catering at the Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina for 19 years.