Themes take their cues from anywhere: other cultures, television, even the circus. Here, culinary experts note what's cooking in the world of themed food.

WHERE THERE'S AN IRON WILL

Television inspired one regularly requested theme menu at Alexander's Steakhouse in Cupertino, Calif. “It is in the spirit of [Food Network's] ‘Iron Chef,’ in which the guest can request the chef to personally cook for them rotating around likes, dislikes, an ingredient or a combination of all these factors,” chef Jeffrey Stout says. While at the gathering, the party states preferences, and the chef then writes dish and presentation ideas on a 3-foot piece of butcher paper. The meal typically includes five to eight courses featuring guest requests plus three amuses-bouche, an intermezzo and a pre-dessert — which Stout describes as “just something small and quick after the meal while the dessert is plating,” such as cheese or fruit. These five items are courtesy of the chef and can deviate from the evening's theme, as can the dessert.

The menu requires being creative on the fly, but that's part of the excitement. One request Stout particularly enjoyed developing was a “surf and turf” combination. “I loved this challenge — 10 different proteins to play with!” he notes. One result was a crisped duo of white prawn wrapped in shredded phyllo and a duck confit wrapped in tofu skin, with a red wine veal reduction complementing one and beurre blanc complementing the other.

A cilantro menu proved equally as satisfying a task. “I had cilantro, coriander seed and micro-cilantro to play with,” he says. “It was fun to create a chilled frothy soup, purees and emulsions from one ingredient.” Results included an escargot and cilantro fritter dish with whole poached garlic cloves and bacon. Pureed cilantro enlivened the tempura, “making it as green as you can imagine,” Stout says.

And the theme doesn't stop with the food. Stout developed a lobster and eggplant gratin drizzled with plenty of olive oil, and “because of the Mediterranean theme,” he says, “I used an olive branch from outside and tied this around the dish.”

CARNIVAL TIME

A gypsy carnival theme from Johannesburg, South Africa-based Debi's Culinary Productions meant jugglers, stilt-walkers, magicians, fire-eaters and a fortuneteller as well as corresponding food. The daytime menu consisted of fair favorites: cotton candy, popcorn, fruit and sandwiches, while the evening featured a spit braai — or rotisserie bar-becue — and a sit-down dinner. Marinated rolled sirloin and other meats were cooked over the open flame, while salads — such as a pear, hazelnut and blue cheese salad — breads and a dessert buffet — including koeksisters, a South African dessert of fried dough dipped in sugar syrup — rounded out the menu.

Despite the carefree atmosphere, the event had plenty of complications. No freezer space, a tiny kitchen with no equipment and special diet demands requiring vegetarian, kosher and halal options were just a few of the difficulties for the 300-guest fête at the Johannesburg Zoo.

While Debi van Flymen, self-described “chief cook and bottle-washer” of Debi's Culinary Production, deems the event a success, sometimes themes can go too far, she says. “I went to an art gallery opening where all the food was blue,” she notes. “Not only was it unappetizing — no one touched a thing!” Yet, Van Flymen impressed guests with a different monochromatic menu. White served as the primary color, but other colors weren't banned completely. This resulted in dishes such as seared scallops and hearts of palm; sole in a white wine sauce on herb mashed potatoes and steamed baby vegetables; and a dessert of white chocolate mousse in a white chocolate shell.

A SPITFIRE MENU

The theme was obvious for one annual private school fundraising gala catered by Patina Catering in Los Angeles. With a beautiful Mediterranean-style home serving as the venue, a Moroccan-theme menu was a natural choice. The food was enhanced by founder and celebrity chef Joachim Splichal's collection of serving pieces collected from Morocco and throughout the world: authentic tagines, exotic fabrics and giant glass urns filled with such Mediterranean fare as apricots, dates, nuts, lady apples and citrus fruits. The centerpiece of the evening was a whole lamb roasted on a spit so the 400 guests could see it cooking. “It was really the hit of the party,” says Laurence Whiting, director of Patina Catering. But it did require extra precautions, such as staying clear of the brush and mature trees on the property and working with the fire department. Other offerings were preserved-lemon couscous and chakchouka — a salad with slow-cooked tomatoes and peppers. The Moroccan party was so well received, Patina now offers it as a regular theme.

While Whiting notes the Moroccan theme is particularly hot, other approaches to theme events are not. “The term ‘fusion’ is very passe,” he says. “It was once considered novel that you might combine Italian and Asian food, but it's so typical now to find a variety of tastes and flavors that I think if anything is hot, it's what I might call ‘international flavors.’”

RESOURCES

Alexander's Steakhouse
408/446-2222
www.alexanderssteakhouse.com

Debi's Culinary Productions
+2711 880-0075
www.culinaryproductions.co.za

Patina Catering
213/239-2508
www.patinacatering.com

Wishful Theming

Even chefs and caterers have wish lists. Read on to discover what themes they're itching to do.

One couple piqued Jeffrey Stout's interest in an “Iron Chef”-style menu featuring caviar. The roe resources at Alexander's Steakhouse gives him plenty of caviar options: tobiko, wabiko — wasabi-flavored tobiko caviar — American caviar, osetra, beluga, trout roe and Japanese tonburi — an edible seed called “land caviar” due to its texture. “It would be expensive but quite fun!” Stout says. “Can you imagine the wine pairings?”

“I am just waiting for a masked Venetian ball opportunity!” Debi van Flymen says. She envisions white-glove banqueting service, silver salvers with domes, and sugar art masterpieces gracing buffet tables.

Laurence Whiting cites organic as his preferred menu “theme.” “I wouldn't call it a theme like ‘circus.’ But from the guest standpoint, it is kind of a theme because I think it's something that people are not accustomed to.”