How to Host a Dinner Party: Lessons from Chefs

Imagine the scene – you’ve invited all of your nearest and dearest over to celebrate (insert awesome life event here). You’ve spent weeks inviting, getting ready, cleaning, and prepping for this and you’re so happy to have everyone in one place.  They are all arriving and…you’ll be right back, you just have to put together the drinks.  They sit down for dinner and…hold on, you just have to do one last thing in the kitchen. They’re relaxing after a delicious meal and…just one second, you have to get dessert ready.

Brunch Event

At this brunch event, I had made basically everything ahead of time, so my only job was replenishing food throughout.

We’ve all either been there or been a guest at a party where the host doesn’t even seem to have a second to enjoy their own fabulous event because not only do they have hosting duties, but they have lots of things that need to be done to get the food served.  So when recently I was leading my culinary students through their final project – a 4 course meal for 20+ people – and we were relaxing in the kitchen, joking, and breathing easily, I started thinking about what techniques these chefs had used that could be used at home to elicit a similar result – one where you’re relaxed, happy, and engaged with your guests while hosting a dinner (or any other food focused) party.

Student and Son

This photo was taken as guests were arriving and apps were being passed which means that 1. there was time for a student to have a moment with his son and 2. it was relaxed enough that I noticed and stopped to take a picture.

I’ve been in charge of food for many an event and I can vividly picture both ends of the spectrum.  Starting with the good, there was the baby shower that I helped host and was so prepared for that all of the food was made ahead of time and I calmly went out on the morning of for a 7 mile run (that alone is noteworthy nowadays!) before coming home, heating up a few things, laying out the food, and proceeding to fully enjoy the party and it’s associated activities.  Then there was the time that I thought pizza at camping was a good idea – for 30 people.  I had made all of the individual pizza crusts ahead of time, but severely underestimated the amount of work it takes to create a topping bar, cook all of the pizzas, and clean up, especially while surrounded by dirt.

So what can you learn from this if you’re not a trained chef or hosting dinners all the time?  I believe that there are four key steps to take that will determine your success in hosting a relaxed and delicious dinner party whether you’re serving 2 people or 20:

  1. Plan it all out well ahead of time
  2. Balance the elements (and the work)
  3. Figure out what you can make ahead
  4. Create your schedule, stick to it as much as you can, and then relax!

So let’s take a closer look:

Plan it all Out Well Ahead of Time

By nature, I am not a planner, because who knows what I’m going to feel like eating before the moment is actually here. (Same goes for picking out clothes.)  That said, my sister and I have been talking about the appetizers that I’m making for her August wedding since at least last September.

And thank goodness we have! What was originally a cheese platter extravaganza has morphed into a much more sensible gourmet snack display (hello, brown butter Chex Mix!) thanks to the fact that we had time to think about the food, consider the logistics, realize how that might impact the food, and then start all over again.

A hosted meal at home certainly doesn’t require 11 months lead time, but I highly encourage you to start planning at the highest level at least a week out from your event.  Why? This will allow you time to mull over your options, consider your guests, take into account your schedule, and then settle on something that will be enjoyed by your guests and is also feasible for your schedule, cooking skills, and enjoyment of the event.

Just starting out and feeling stumped for ideas? Here’s where I begin:

  1. Is it a sit down dinner or something more casual?: This will impact the type of food that you serve, in both “formality” but also determining whether it’s a plate and fork affair or something that would benefit from more bite-sized, self-contained elements.
  2. Is there a theme that you’d like to utilize?: No need to create something super specific or kitschy, but a general overarching guide can be really helpful in tying everything together, selecting the food, and providing guidance to guests who might like to bring something. Think Asian fusion type dishes vs. Game of Thrones. Or not, ya know, whatever works.
  3. Are there any considerations specific to your guests?: I highly encourage you to start thinking about any dietary restrictions or food preferences of your guests from the get-go as this can heavily influence the choices you make from this point on and can also be a huge point of stress right before or during the event if you haven’t done it ahead of time. Nowadays, I expect that out of a party of 4 there will be at least one person with an allergy, restriction or heavy preference and it’s a lot easier to accommodate it as I’d like to do if I am aware of and plan for it ahead of time.

WorstDinnerGuest

Photo courtesy of the The Ktichn

Funny story: At one point, while working at Whole Foods Market, I was on a team of 15 on which half of us had a least one food restriction including – a few vegans, a few who avoided gluten, one Paleo devotee.  It was always an adventure coming up with food that the could feed the whole group!

Balance the Elements (and the Work)

I can’t even count the number of meals I’ve planned that have elaborate plating or elements, one stacked on top of another. It’s interesting teaching in a culinary program, because it’s only seeing it through more beginner’s eyes that you realize how much you’ve learned from all of these blunders upon blunders.  

I remember one particular moment when I wanted to serve meatballs for a 200 person event.  On the surface this doesn’t sound so bad – freezable, easy, forgiving – but when it came down to calculating how many we’d need, individually rolling each one, and then storing all those meatballs in the freezer the ridiculousness of that plan was clear before I got too deep.

 

Even if you aren’t planning an event for 200, I encourage you to consider the following to ensure you’ve balanced both the elements and work for your meal:

  • Type of food: The easiest way to make a meal coherent and balanced is to pick a genre of food and go with it.  I know, I know, there are insanely creative and talented people out there who can make anything go together (case in point: my friend Shannon who combined a watermelon basil soup with a tomato one amongst many other feats of flavor). Most of us aren’t them, so picking a flavor profile, ethnicity or style of food can help to ensure it all goes together.  
  • Preparation methods: Anyone whose hosted Thanksgiving has probably learned that hard way that you can’t both finish the turkey and reheat sides at the same time when they all need space in the oven. The same principle holds true for your party. You are limited by the number of burners on your stove, appropriately sized pan, and oven space, so plan a meal that takes the most advantage of the tools at your disposal rather than relying on just one. Think: Baked ham (oven) with sauteed veggies (stove) vs. baked ham (oven) with casserole (also oven)
  • Amount of effort: Hands off recipes are your friend when it comes to hosting. I know that many folks will look at the time it takes to make a recipe and think “2 hours, I could never spend that much time on one recipe”! But when it comes to dinner parties, I’d encourage you to ignore the overall time a recipe takes since you’re likely to be spending hours in the kitchen anyways and consider the hands-on time that the recipe requires. Ready for some hardcore math?

Hands on time = preparation (chopping) +  attended cooking (saute, fry, etc)

Total cooking time = Hands on time + cook time (the time that an item is just sitting in the oven or on your stovetop)

For my money, I actually prefer longer cooking recipes when hosting a party because it means that a) they’ll have more developed flavor and b) I can start them earlier in the day, stick them on the stove or oven, and spend the rest of the day cleaning up and getting ready while the food cooks itself.  A braise would be a prime example of this and there is not better guide for braising than Daniel Boloud’s aptly named Braise.

Braise

My favorite braising book. Because that’s a totally reasonable thing to think about, have, and admit out loud, right?

Figure out What You Can Make Ahead

Hands down the best thing you can do to host a successful, stress-free dinner party is make as much ahead of time as possible. Ask my students! We had almost everything not just cooked ahead of time, but fully portioned out, labeled, and ready to be put on the plate (after a quick reheat in the oven if necessary).  

BeetCakes

Beet cakes, the main course, were all made, shaped, and baked ahead of time. We then placed them on sheet pans, refrigerated overnight, removed them about an hour before service and reheated them in the oven right before putting them on the plates.

BloodOranges

Countless blood oranges were juiced the day before (truth be told we ended up buying some blood orange juice as well to save time!) and mixed with maple syrup and water at the right proportions so on the morning of the event we just needed to throw it all in an ice cream maker (or 3) and then freeze it in containers until the event.

Of course at home, where you’re hindered by hours in the day, number of hands to help, and kitchen space, prepping to this scale may not be possible, but I assure you that you’ll be a happier host if you have most everything done ahead because inevitably things you didn’t even think of pop up and this way you can both address those and ensure that your kitchen isn’t still covered in flour and vegetable debris when your guests arrive.

How do you know if something can be made ahead of time?  Sadly, I find this to be more art than science, and it probably warrants a whole series of posts (let me know if you’re interested!) but here are the basics:

  • Saucy things keep best: Stews, braises, pulled pork or chicken, they all sit in a juicy sauce that’s full of flavor which means that even more flavor develops over time and they keep well because they’re staying hydrated and heat back up easily on the stove or in the oven, depending on where you have space.
  • Dips and sauces often develop flavor the longer they sit: There’s something about some cooling off time – in the fridge or even just on the countertop – that does magical things to sauces and dips. This is why hummus, yogurt dip, tomato sauce, and even dressings are so forgiving. You can make them a day or two ahead of time, cleanup, and then let them sit until you’re ready to serve them.
  • Hearty greens marinate well: Kale and it’s fellow dark leafy greens have been getting a lot of press lately for their nutrition, but I find them equally compelling for their versatility and heartiness. What this means to me is that I can prep them ahead of time, throw them in a bowl in the fridge, then remove them to room temperature and dress them up to two hours ahead of time and end up with something even more delicious than if I had made it in the moment. This kale salad or this slaw are great examples of that.

So how do you know when you can make it? There are lots of charts and resources that will tell you how long something can keep cooked, but for the purposes of hosting a party I’d suggest that you not make anything more than 3 days ahead of time.  Most everything that is cooked can keep for that long safely, but extend it longer and you start to get into a lot of ins and outs and details that are just another thing to stress about. 

Without trying to answer every question in this post, here are a few things that I wouldn’t do further ahead of time than specifically suggested by a recipe:

  • Marinating meat in acid – they tell you how long to marinate for a reason as acidic marinades can actually start pre-cooking your food, which makes for an uneven cook time when it comes time to actually put it over heat
  • Grilling or roasting meat – while you can finagle ways to dry cook meat ahead of time and reheat, it’s better when your meat is warm from just being cooked, so unless you’re in a commercial setting and absolutely can’t cook and serve the meat right away, I’d still recommend to doing it in the moment

Create your schedule, stick to it as much as you can, and then relax!

This tip comes with the major caveat that you’re going to inevitably be overly ambitious in your scheduling and things will run late. Herein lies the benefit of doing as much ahead of time as possible and making a schedule.  

The most important thing about a schedule? It inherently results in a detailed task-list that is ordered by priority. Without this you will forget critical steps or components. 

The good news is that even if you don’t complete everything on time, you can continue down the list in order and be relatively certain that everything will get done. Take a look at the example of our event below:

MealPlanA

As you see, we outlined each item from our menu and everything that needed to get done for it (this is on the day of the event) so that we could cross them off as we went along. Many of the items that you see in purple at the top were carried over to day-of from the days before as they hadn’t yet gotten done.

We had the best intentions to have all kinds of things done on Thursday before our Friday event. When reality struck and they weren’t, we simply moved those things to Friday morning and carved out a block of time to get them done with time to spare for cleaning up and prepping for guest arrival.

Over the next few days I’ll be going into more detail about coming up with a schedule, planning a menu, and picking fool-proof recipes. But in the meantime, I need your help:

What are the hardest or most fear inducing parts of hosting a successful dinner party? And possibly related, what’s your biggest “hosting fail”?

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