Food & Drink

Cafe Laura Theme Dinners are not your average dinner party

Students chefs plate meals for the April 4 Willy Wonka theme dinner at Cafe Laura.
Students chefs plate meals for the April 4 Willy Wonka theme dinner at Cafe Laura.

Walk into Cafe Laura on the Penn State campus on select nights during the semester, and you’ll be walking into a madhouse of frenzied activity, as excited hospitality and business students swarm to produce a top-notch dining experience.

To the average Centre County diner, this is just one of the cafe’s Theme Dinners, an often sold-out and always a unique production. But to the participating students, it is a vital capstone course, where their training, studying, lectures and exams over four years culminate into a handful of evenings.

Each of the events is planned by students who aim to have successful careers in the hospitality industry; but this is not your average dinner party. Instead, each dinner is carefully planned in the same way as a real restaurant opening. In fact, instructor Jean-Pierre Ranjeva said that students are expected to come up with a business plan that’s in such good shape, it could easily be taken to the bank and taken legitimately.

Deciding on a theme and menu is just the first step of the journey, though. Ingredients must be purchased within budget, and teams of back-of-house and front-of-house staff (made up of peers only) must be managed. There’s marketing to be done, recipes to write and accounting to attend to — a tangible profit, from the pockets of real diners, should be seen at the end of the evening. Whatever the outcome, a full report is expected, detailing students’ experiences.

It’s a process that takes about eight weeks, with 30-40 students taking turns playing each role. Everyone has a turn as the head of the entire operation, but they could potentially be washing dishes the very next dinner.

For hospitality students who are by no means trained chefs, they turn out a fine meal. One of the most recent dinners, held April 4, was styled after the whimsical world of Willy Wonka. Menus always include three appetizers, a salad, five entrees with sides and three desserts.

The appetizer options featured a few pun-inspired selections, from the “Puree Imagination” (tomato and basil bisque) to the Golden Egg (duck breasts over scallion pancakes). Entrees seemed to match the various classic characters as much as possible, with a cowboy strip steak named after Mike Teavee (matching, of course, Mike’s original incarnation in the 1971 film, rather than his most recent adaption) and a chicken schnitzel for the German Augustus Gloop, among others. Desserts included a blueberry swirl cheesecake and Scrumptious Fudgecake Delight.

Each themed dinner is offered twice during a semester, and each can accommodate 140 guests, with attendee numbers typically matching or falling just below the cut-off. It’s easy to see why, as one watches the pre-opening rush in the kitchen, as well as the calculated actions of the front-of-house. These dinners are genuinely important to the students, and not just because they’re being graded. It’s truly a chance for the Hospitality Management school to interact with the community. Colleen Carroll, a senior who has a job lined up at Marriott after graduation, described the course as an entire team working together to produce a unique experience, every time, for the diners of State College.

Ranjeva agrees that this community aspect of the dinners are an important facet. The students are very proud to show off their acquired skills and take ownership of their hard work, as they interact with the region’s many food-lovers, who show up to offer their support for Penn State hospitality students.

Four more theme dinners are scheduled for the remainder of the semester: Tuesday-Thursday and April 25. The remaining themes include “Rustic Smokehouse: Where Our Roots Start in the Kitchen,” “Avenue: Street Food Reimagined,” “Destination Disney: A Taste of Epcot” and “Our Secret Garden: Your Key to the Flavors of Spring.” Reservations — while they last — can be made online at

Holly Riddle is a freelance food, travel and lifestyle writer. She can be reached at