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Ideas for the Banquet Chef

Aug 17, 2007
Like a good book, a good banquet is so much more than a meal for a crowd. The planning and execution is a task for the master idea-maker. Pulling it all off requires a cast and crew rivaling the filmmakers of Hollywood in size and skill. Timing is everything - one person off their cue and the soup gets cold, the centerpieces melt, and the whole show comes crashing down. It is an art with a hundred variations.

What scale of a production are you looking to make? If you're given creative freedom, you might be looking for that one idea for a theme or attitude from which the unfolding of your entire scheme can emerge. Herein, some ideas for inspiration:

The Medieval Renaissance Banquet
Renaissance Faires are becoming an annual event in every major city, usually around the Fall. Groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism organize on the Internet and travel around in a circuit. The popular restaurant and entertainment chain Medieval Times has also helped establish the Middle Ages theme as a popular banquet genre.

For Medieval banquets, the food is usually simple and heavily features roast meat. If you serve alcohol, mead is a popular Renaissance-era beverage, but finding somebody who knows how to make it is difficult. Other Renaissance alcohol might include ales, malt beverages, and grog or rum. Side dishes may be simple steamed vegetable or potato dishes. Breads and soups go well together, and a bread soup-bowl - that is, a large crusty loaf hollowed out and served that way, like soup in an edible bowl - actually had it's origins in the Renaissance. Other foods include tarts and cakes, and cheeses and wines.

While there is a myth that Medieval folks ate roasts with their bare hands straight off the bone, actually times for the better-off of the period - the ones who could actually manage banquets! - were more civilized and utensils are encouraged. You might think about wooden serving tools, costuming the staff in European Middle-Age garb, and referring to the servers as "serving wenches and rogues". Attend a Renaissance Faire in your area to get a feel for it; these are great fun and a cultural expedition.

The Elegant Oriental Banquet
Here's an opportunity to put your sushi or teppanyaki chef to good use! Steak and seafood restaurants with an oriental theme have made their mark on the culinary world, notably the popular Benihana restaurant chain. The steak and grill house style of Japanese restaurant is only one way to look at it, however, and you may consider something a little more formal than having a cook at each table flicking steak knives and flaming pans around inches from your guest's noses.

A formal Oriental occasion is more relaxed and refined. Think more of geisha servers, elegant centerpieces, and delicate foods. This is an occasion which calls for a tea serving. Start with a basic sado ceremony and alter it for your needs. Perhaps replace tea with a choice of hot beverages before the meal. Keep a menu that is consistent with the whole event, sticking to Chinese, Japanese, or Korean, whatever you pick.

The whole event can be kept to an Oriental style of refinement when you keep the spirit of "wabi". Wabi means "quiet or sober refinement, or subdued taste" and is characterized by humility, restraint, simplicity, naturalism, profundity, and a kind of humbling slight imperfection.

The Technology Company Banquet
The computer and electronics industry continues to grow at a fierce pace. More and more you'll find yourself catering company events for a computer-related enterprise. In these cases, management is like management everywhere, but the workers are something else. The theme isn't so much a matter here as the kind of food.

Technology workers such as engineers and programmers tend to be high-minded in their food preferences. The stereotype of the computer geek snacking on junk food is absolutely false. All computer types are at least discriminating in their diet and many are highly health-food conscious. Many prefer spicy ethnic food, and on their own organize group expeditions to the most exotic restaurant in town. The only place where the stereotype is on track is caffeine; IT people still love their coffee and energy drinks. Setting up a quality espresso bar is sure to be a big hit.

Theming is something you should discuss before-hand. Find out if there is a strong company subculture you can cater to. A science fiction show popular to the group, perhaps. In any case, theming will be largely a matter of decoration rather than menu. The only general constraint is that most technology workers are urban and like some sophistication in their settings.

The Western Banquet
A "no-brainer" for the American culture. Western themed restaurants aren't hard to come by. Ranch fare is hardy and simple to prepare and is served without too much trimmings. Barbecue, chilis, ribs, cornbread and corn dishes, roast beef, roast turkey, and just about anything you can put gravy on will fit in. Desserts such as cherry pie and apple cobbler.

Beverages may be either of coffee or sarsaparilla (root beer). Don't go overboard on the theming but keep it stylish. The key is not to decorate with cliches like cattle skulls, wagon wheels and hay bales, but to keep an atmosphere of the typical classy ranch house with a western flare.

The Christian Banquet
A Biblical theme is an interesting experience. You may get a call for this whenever you have a church wedding, a religious social event, or a business with a heavy faith accent. Be sure to find out ahead of time whether they have dietary constraints such as a class of meats they don't eat or Kosher restrictions.

Fish, poultry, and lamb will be a safe choice for meats. Salads are popular, as is any raw or steamed vegetable. Bread is also a big part of Biblical fare, particularly whole grain breads with a lot of wheat and barley. Fruits can be dates, figs, pomegranates, or grapes. Beverages should be fruit juices, which are pretty much the only safe choice with all of the religious restrictions on alcohol and hot drinks out there.

Hope these ideas got your creative juices flowing!
About the Author
Freelance writer for over eleven years.

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