By Rob Schaefer
I recently returned from a trip to the Mediterranean with
stops in Italy, Greece and Turkey – a region from which so many
culinary influences emerge. With advancements in technology,
and transportation being what it is today, we can no longer
cling to the safety of our regional market. We are obligated to
expand our minds and our resources to create events that are
as opulent and unique as the clients we hope to attract. Be it a
spice, way of serving or entire culinary and sensory experience,
it is time to turn to the global community to make meetings
and events out of this world!
One trend that is currently sweeping the nation is the food
truck, or portable food market. For centuries people have
been enchanted with the exotic qualities of street vendor fare
– the aroma, the sights, the sounds. Whether it is the sight of
steaming pans on open flames, the wafting smell, or the charm
of the vendor, the experience is intoxicating. In Istanbul, I found
nothing more delicious than grilled corn on the cob with melted
butter followed by roasted chestnuts dipped in chocolate. It is
something I will never forget.
The one-dish cart or truck, from fish and chips to gelato,
has produced another popular trend – the one-item, or
mono-meal, restaurant. From macaroni and cheese, hot
dogs, waffles, cupcakes and chocolate, guests can sample their
favorite food item prepared in dozens of different ways. The
possibilities are endless and translating these types of culinary
trends into your event is an easy, fun and cost-effective way of
doing something unique.
Now the question is, how do you get started? First, look at
the type of event you are planning and ask yourself
if there is an obvious connection to a specific country or region. For instance,
I have an upcoming event that involves a Belgian bank. Using
linens that possess an “Old World” flair, I am creating a Belgian
waffle bar by offering a variety of delectable toppings, including
fresh strawberries, apple compote, peaches, whipped cream,
chocolate and caramel sauces and crushed nuts. Guests can also
select accompaniments such as eggs, sausage or ham.
The key to mono-meals is to break the food stations into
totally separate units with individual décor. For example, if I
were to create a Turkish kebab station, it would only offer kebabs
and dipping sauces, such as lemon tahini or yogurt. The décor,
staff uniforms, music and smell can all contribute to creating an
exceptional experience for your guests – think fez hats, scimitars
and raw spices placed in glass vessels. Let the beauty of the food
and culture take center stage.
You can also look to various cultures for food and beverage
pairings – this will lead you to the right combination. In Turkey,
many beverages include citrus or mint bases to cool you off. I
consumed many lime and mint ices while visiting this region
and found them to be outstanding complements to the culinary
offerings. Take initiative and try new things. Only in America do
we have colas with our dinners and pour ketchup on our filets –
think outside the bottle!
You do not have to take a cultural theme to the extreme to
spice up your event. Maybe it is just a flavor or the way in which
something is prepared that adds a little extra to your event. During
the oppressive summer heat, I have given many stale events a
Caribbean flair just by changing up some culinary components.
Ribs and chicken can be transformed with Caribbean spices
and marinades. My offerings of grilled vegetables with chilled
summer salads and banana mousse with fried plantains have
made many clients happy!
Inspiring themes can be found in Asian, Mediterranean, Latin
and African cultures, as well as here in the United States. Entire
menus have been developed around craft and micro brewed
beers, wood smoked items, artisanal breads, infused oils and
exotic fruits. A great way to serve your guests flavor – and a little
education – is to offer an American version and an ethnic version
of the same food. For example, potatoes aren’t too exciting, but
add a little Gruyere cheese to one and a Tex-Mex version to the
other and the palate is stimulated!
Another way to boost your theme is through lighting and
linen choices. Hanging lanterns and chandeliers dramatically
changes the look of an event. Take one element, such as a
lantern, and saturate the space with it. Clusters of three, five
and seven look spectacular and reduce negative space. Branches
and raffia add an African feel, colored film applied to glass offers
a Mediterranean flare, and white spray paint, red candles and
blue ribbon offer a touch of Americana. We are seeing the heavy
damasks and bedazzled linens of the past few years giving way
to bold, ethnic patterns, including paisley and intricate beaded
embroidery. It is an easy task to rent dynamic linens to make
your tables or food stations pop.
I am often asked where I find my design inspiration. I begin
by looking at culture, its architecture and any significant
landmarks or symbols of the region. When doing a Parisian
theme, I incorporate the Eiffel Tower, be it in ice, chocolate
or iron. Added to a crêpe, cheese or dessert station, this icon
will reinforce a French theme and you will notice the results
instantly. Another French symbol is the fleur de lis, which can
be found on linens, and in dessert molds and cookie cutters.
It also makes a stunning ice sculpture. When I think of Paris,
I think of macaroons, baguettes and cafés, all of which can
be incorporated into your theme. Try a market basket filled
with baguettes for a centerpiece, iron patio tables for buffets,
or petite chairs and watering cans for décor. Another effective
design idea that transforms the space is having black and
white shadow images of the city projected on curtains or walls
to give the impression you are there.
If I were planning a Turkish theme, I would seek inspiration
in domed mosques, minarets soaring into the sky and the Grand
Bazaar. The brilliant blue water of Greece and the white stucco
houses with blue shutters create a stunning color palate for
your next event. Gyros, moussaka and calamari are a refreshing
change with a Grappa sparkler and an Ouzo martini. These
are the details that will transport your guests to another place.
Whether you have been around the world or just around town,
you can easily make your next meeting a globally inspired one.
Rob’s Rules for Global Inspiration
1. Educate your palate by trying various local ethnic
restaurants to see what you are missing.
2. Research other cultures, their architecture and icons.
3. Find a global connection with the event you are planning
– where an item is manufactured, or where the guest
speaker is from.
4. Create mono-meal stations with one culinary item,
perhaps prepared in a variety of ways or with a variety of
5. Remember that if you are unwilling to try new things,
your event might be safe, but it will definitely be boring.
6. Find color inspiration from a region and mix it with
cultural patterns and textures.
7. Music from any culture can easily be purchased and
makes a big difference.
8. Pick one design element and saturate the room with it or
make it a focal point.
9. Find inspiration for food and drink pairings from global
regions. Modify if necessary, but remember there is a
reason they evolved together.
10. Remember, the American way is not necessarily the right
way. Think outside the bottle!
This column is meant to provide practical advice, tips and rules of
engagement you need in the meeting and event planning industry. If you
have a question, whether it’s how to dress, how to address your guests or
what to serve as the main course, e-mail Rob at [email protected]
com. Your question might just inspire the topic of his next column! Rob
Schaefer is Vice President of Steven Becker Fine Dining in St. Louis.