When Master Chef judge Gary Mehigan was asked to create the menu for a Great Gatsby-themed wedding, he couldn’t bring himself to simply include, by default, the predictable champagne and lobster dishes or salmon mousse hors d’oeuvres and deviled eggs.
Instead, he hit the internet and spent days researching the era and learning about Prohibition America. He scoured cookbooks from the early 20th century looking for the hottest food trends at the time and even found himself flicking through women’s magazines from the day, seeking authentic ingredients and flavours being used in American kitchens in the 1920s.
It might seem extreme, but that’s how Gary, a classically trained, award-winning chef with 30 years’ experience in kitchens across the globe, tackles every job – with passion, obsession and an eye for perfection.
“It was an amazing and eye-opening experience and I’d recommend the process to anyone looking to hold an authentically themed event, be it a wedding, a corporate dinner or an intimate birthday bash,” says Gary, who co-owns Melbourne-based Big Kitchen Events, which caters corporate events, private functions and, of course, weddings galore.
“The Great Gatsby is set in 1922, a time that was about show and opulence, but it is also set on New York’s Long Island, so regional seafood was – and still is – huge and, because it was during the Prohibition, alcohol wasn’t legal. Gelatine, too, was just making an appearance.
“So, both these things changed the way dishes could be cooked and forced chefs to be a lot more adventurous than in days gone by – and they dabbled with lots of ‘new’ flavours and dishes, such as upside down pineapple cakes and crab cocktails, which we take for granted today.”
The result of Gary’s almost fanatical devotion was this thoroughly authentic – and mouth-wateringly good – menu, which reflects the depth of his research.He’s also provided equally well thought out menus that can be used for several other wedding themes, including a French-themed menu and an Australian showcase wedding meal menu, too.
Gary’s Great Gatsby-themed menu features crab stuffed mushrooms, Oysters Rockerfeller and the Waldorf Astoria’s famous Signature Red Wedding Cake straight from their 1920 menu, as well as tipples from The Savoy’s original cocktail book, which was published in 1930.
“It’s entirely possible that every one of the dishes on this Great Gatsby-themed menu would have been enjoyed in some form in any one of Long Island’s speakeasies in the ‘20s,” says Gary.
It is this level of authenticity that Gary and his team at Big Kitchen Events strive for when putting together an event. After all, he jokes, “what’s the point of having a themed menu when the only thing ‘themed’ about it is the cutlery and crockery?
Gary says the first ingredient in his recipe for putting together a meal that genuinely matches your wedding’s theme is to go beyond the predictable and do some research into your theme.
For a recent Alice in Wonderland themed request, staff members read Lewis Caroll’s classic novel and themed courses around the book’s chapters and, when Big Kitchen Events was asked to cater for a Scandinavian ‘forest floor’ themed menu, they created a truly rustic and earthy meal that contained modern versions of traditional Swedish cuisine.
“We thought about what a forest floor means to us,” said Gary who grew up in Europe where winters are markedly different from here in Australia, “and it was all about chestnuts and greens, sprouts and nuts, deep, dark flavours, as well as the smell of smoke and evenings by the fire.
“We had to think how to bring that feeling to the room and the result was a menu comprising smoked quails breasts and roasted garlic with aioli, and even the centrepieces were edible, so guests could nibble on them as if they were in a forest. “
Similarly, when approached about a beach wedding, Gary says his brain automatically switches to “fabulous thoughts of crashing waves, salty air, fish and chips and sea walls.”
It is, he says, important to have a sense of place, as well as the ability to add a little sparkle that adds to the overall feel and theme of the wedding.
Gary suggests, too, adding a great big dollop of fun – and whimsy – to your wedding meal planning in order to create an experience rather than just a delicious meal.
It’s the philosophy Gary kept in mind when building Big Kitchen Events’ new home – with accompanying venue – in Sutton Street In North Melbourne.
The main function room (pictured below) has a warm, roomy and light-filled warehouse feel, but it contains enough blank spaces onto which images can be projected to change the room’s atmosphere and create the exact look a couple is after.
These projections could be happy snaps of the couple before their big day, digital art or even their wedding menu.
“Putting together a wedding feast is about thinking about the whole event. The blank canvas starts with the room, not just the plate,” Gary insists.
Finally, Gary says it is crucial to consider your guest list and cater for them – and, despite adding his suggested dollops of fun, couples need to be a little practical when planning their wedding food, too.
Wedding guests lists are usually peppered with a variety of eating preferences, from dear old Aunty Flo, who may want a straightforward meat and three veg meal, to guests who could be gluten intolerant, fruitarian, pescatarian or, perhaps, have other dietary restrictions.
Gary says he always tries to make an event just as special for these guest and hates the idea of “just giving the vegetarians a pile of nicely placed vegetables on a plate.”
He suggests offering them something different and unique, such as a roasted red capsicum, quinoa and pine nut tart with red pepper chutney or an ancient grain salad made from Persian feta, du puy lentils, freekah, almonds and pine nuts.
“That’s much more appetising, don’t you think?”
Gary advises couples to ask their caterers to go the extra mile and personalise meals for these guests “so that you know they’ll leave your wedding with a great sense of satisfaction, and not feeling left out – or going home hungry!”
“When planning your wedding meal, approach it as though you’re creating an event and a memory, not just another function,” says Gary who insists BKE’s staff approach every event as a blank canvas on which they must ‘design’ each meal and each menu.
“Every couple is different so, we say, why shouldn’t every wedding meal and every menu be different if they want it to be?
“They may not know it, but their big days are really important to us, too. We put a little bit of ourselves into every meal with prepare and can only hope that a couple, on one of the most special days of their lives, can see that, feel that and, of course, taste that!”