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Five Cardinal Rules to Hosting a Dinner Party // January 27, 2017

Five Cardinal Rules to Hosting a Dinner Party
by Trevor Gamelin

1) Don’t stress out!

Hosting a dinner party can be a huge source of stress for some people, to the point where they dread the thought so much, they simply avoid ever having one, despite the desire to entertain. Most of the time the source of this stress is the pressure they put on themselves to make sure everything is just perfect, an expectation that is rarely shared by their guests.

Most people just want to spend time with friends, maybe meet a new friend or two, enjoy some decent food and drinks and have no illusions of perfection. If you want a flawless meal with impeccable presentation, you go out to a 5 star restaurant. Everyone knows you’re just an average person, probably with an average kitchen, and not a Michelin starred chef with a fully staffed and equipped restaurant or hotel kitchen. So the first step to a great dinner party, is don’t take yourself too seriously!

The first step towards success in making sure it’s a fun night, is to choose the right group of people. You should know your friends, co-workers and family well enough to figure out how to avoid any potential conflict. There’s nothing wrong with having a large network of friends with a myriad of differing and passionate opinions; but a light hearted dinner party is not the place to hash out those differences. You can all get together at your favorite pub or lounge over your favorite microbrew for debate night. Try to create groups of people with similar dietary restrictions & preferences (or lack of them). The last thing you want to doing is making 2-3 versions of every dish!

2) KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid)!

The number of people you plan to have over for the evening will go a long way in determining the menu. The more people there are, the simpler your menu needs to become in order for the evening to run relatively smoothly. With anymore than 8 people attending (including you and your significant other), you should seriously consider slow cooker or other one pot meals (think Pot Roasts, stews, casseroles, etc).
Here’s a great link to some of our favourites:
http://www.cookingchanneltv.com/recipes/our-best-one-pot-meals.html

If you’re having fewer guests, say 2-3 couples, then you can get more adventurous….but you still have to keep yourself in check. A good rule of thumb is to never make more than 1 recipe that you haven’t already prepared and are comfortable with. It’s exciting to try new dishes, but experience has taught us that cooking requires some experimentation and tweaking. Think of some of the best meals you’ve ever had, and some of your favourite comfort foods. They usually come from a family recipe that has been perfected over generations having been made hundreds or even thousands of times. Practice makes perfect, and that applies to the culinary arts as much as anywhere. BUT, variety is the spice of life…so if you’re the experimental type, go ahead and try that exotic side dish you saw on Instagram….just don’t mess around with your main course! Make sure you prepare something you’re comfortable with for the entrée, and your guests will all cut you a little slack with the appetizers and side dishes.

And don’t overwhelm yourself with too many different dishes for one dinner party. Aside from finger foods to start the evening (more on this later), 1 or 2 appetizers, 1 main entrée and a maximum of 2 side dishes, plus dessert if you like. Nowadays, dessert is entirely optional, so if it’s not your cup of tea, just skip it, no one’s gonna judge you).

3) PREPARE, PREPARE, PREPARE!

This goes not just for the cooking, but extends to housework, table setting, and of course dishes. Whichever way that you want your home to appear when guests arrive, you want to make sure that you get in that shape at least the day before. Assuming that you have a significant other, you can split duties with one of you taking care of the housework, and the other doing food prep if need be, depending of course on the menu.
Get the table settings in place in the morning before you even start working on the food (place cards are a nice touch that add an air of elegance), then you won’t be scrambling with that later, especially as some guests inevitably arrive early (one of the biggest pet peeves of any dinner party host, second only to arriving very late). There’s a great saying in Italy- “People wait for food, food doesn’t wait for people”. As a tip to dinner party guests, please try to do your best to arrive within a ten minute window of the starting time.

Make sure to start the day with an empty dishwasher & kitchen sink, and clean as you go, making sure to keep the dishwasher empty, and washing, drying & putting away between preparations. After dinner clean should consist only of placing everyone’s serving dishes in the dishwasher, putting leftovers in the fridge, and possibly filling pots/pans to soak overnight, and then forgetting about them for the evening. No one wants to sit around while the host is doing dishes, making them feel uncomfortable about being ‘lazy’ on their night out. And you definitely don’t want to be ‘that guy’ (applies to you ladies as well!) that forces their dinner guests to help with the clean up. After dinner clean up should be a 10 minute affair at worst, with the following morning (or afternoon if you over indulge on wine…) dedicated to the cookware & kitchen clean up.

As for the actual food, make a plan and stick to it. Thoroughly read through all recipes you’ll be using, from start to finish, (or write down the steps to any that you’ll making from memory), and figure out which ones need the most time, which ones are time sensitive, which ones can be made ahead and placed in the fridge until ready to cook or serve (PRO TIP- try and choose a dessert that can be premade the day before; there’s lots of yummy options to suit any theme of cuisine). Then determine what order you’re going to everything in, and what can be prepped. Professional chefs always have their food prep done before they start actually assembling or cooking a recipe. The industry term for this is ‘mise en place’ (of course it had to be French!), and it’s the cornerstone of efficient, stress free cooking.
You can prep your food for multiple recipes simultaneously (often times there are some ingredients used in more than one of your recipes), and then worry about sorting them afterwards. By prepping your food, we mean, chopping all your vegetables & herbs, portioning out liquid or powdered ingredients, preparing your meat by cutting to size, marinating if required, etc. Basically anything at all that you can possibly do before assembling/cooking that won’t compromise the flavour of the dish, you want to have done before you get down to the nitty gritty. Squeeze and zest your lemons, mince your garlic (please don’t tell us you weren’t going use garlic…that’s heresy!), grind your spices, grate your cheese, etc. If there are sauces that can be made ahead, make them first. Obviously this won’t work for all sauces, such as hollandaise, buerre blanc, etc, so unless you’re very adept and experienced at making these finishing sauces, you’re probably better off you choose dishes that don’t require these to be made, which needs to be done just prior to serving typically.

Lastly, choose some really easy, light snack foods to have on the table for guests to munch on when they arrive. Nuts, crackers, etc, whatever works with the kind of food you’re making (see below). This gets people in the mood and gives them something to do during predinner conversation while you’re getting the last minute items done.

4) Choose a Theme….and Stick With It!

It doesn’t matter which type of cuisine you choose, every culture has some delicious food, but it’s important that once you pick something, you stay consistent with your menu choices. There is of course a growing trend of fusion food, which blends different culinary cultures, but unless you have had some experience and success with this kind of cooking, you’re best to leave those kinds of experiments to the talent up and coming professional chefs.

Regardless of what type of cuisine you choose, it’s always fun to celebrate that theme by incorporating into the table setting, the background music, the decorations, etc. You can even try to incorporate some aspect of that culture into the planned after dinner activities. Cooking up an authentic Chinese feast? Have everyone bring a used or regifted item, wrapped up and do a Chinese gift exchange!

Doing Indian food? Have a ‘Bollywood’ night where everyone dresses up.
Have a friend or family member who won’t be attending create a few dozen Pictionary clues related to the culture you’re celebrating.
You see where we’re going with this….let your imagination run wild, and if all else fails….google some ideas for various cultures.

Speaking from experience though, you may want to avoid French cuisine, it can be incredibly time consuming, often involves some fairly advanced techniques, and as we alluded to earlier, will often involve ‘finishing’ sauces.

Nearly any cuisine’s culture offers options for both multiple course meals and one pot meals. So regardless of the number of people coming, rest assured you’ll have lots of options.

5) Have Guests Supply Their Own Wine

Assuming that you aren’t charging your guests for their meal, there’s no shame in having each of them bring their own favourite bottles of wine (or whatever their drink of choice is). As a dinner party host, you’re not obligated to break the bank, and depending on your menu, chances are that you’re already paying a handsome amount for the groceries, not to mention investing your time and effort, which is already plenty generous. Also, it would be nearly impossible to account for what is likely a variety of preferences amongst your guests, so it makes sense for them to make their own choices here.

And seriously, unless you happen to moonlight as a Sommelier, there is no need to match the wine to the food. That level of detail is lost on most people at best, and in a lot cases, people will actually appreciate their favourite wines with their meal versus what a ‘professional’ thinks should be paired with it. Their has also been an awful lot of polling and studies done showing that even the experts disagree on what goes with what, and often can’t distinguish between various grades of wine nearly as well as they would have us all believe.

This also removes one more stressor from the equation.

Just make sure to have pitchers of ice water on the table, and it’s not a bad idea to keep the popular types of mix on hand, such as a variety of soda’s, club soda & juices.

Summary

A dinner party is supposed to a fun, enjoyable evening with friends and/or family. Keep it that way. Don’t hold yourself to professional standards, stay within your limits, plan and prepare ahead of time, be ready before guests arrive, minimize your time in the kitchen (especially after dinner!), spend time with your guests, try to have a theme, and remember that you’re not obligated to supply booze for your guests.

Bon Appetite!

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