One of the best things about being a home cook is the opportunity to show off your cooking chops to family, friends and loved ones at a dinner party. Some out there plan dinner parties meticulously; every detail is accounted for, from the crystal that’s to be used for the wine, to the palate cleanser between entrees and dessert. Others go about things much more casually: the grill is fired up, sausages and burgers and passed around on a platter, and beer is a do-it-yourself affair. Grab your own from the ice bucket.
Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes is the kind of dinner party that I like to throw. And after years of throwing them (almost eight years, to be precise) I’ve learned a thing or two. And for those of you who are new to throwing dinner parties, here are some things that you might be doing wrong. (Consider this a corollary to my Huffington Post piece: “10 Things That You’re Doing Wrong at Restaurants.”)
1. Inviting People Who Make You Nervous. It’s a classic sitcom scenario; “the boss is coming to dinner” episode. The stakes are high and everyone’s freaking out. That’s no way to throw a dinner party! Dinner parties aren’t for bosses who make you nervous. If you have to entertain your boss somehow (and, really, do people entertain their bosses nowadays?), take your boss out for a drink. Save dinner parties for the people in your life who make you comfortable, who’ll laugh it off if you accidentally set the dessert on fire (or if you accidentally melt plastic in your pork stew). If you’re at ease everything else will be easy. That’s step 1.
2. Spending Too Much Money. It’s easy to go broke throwing a dinner party, especially if you’re a passionate food person and you want to show off your good taste by only using the best olive oil, white truffles from Alba and cheese so rare and exotic, the mold on it has a higher IQ than you do. If you spend too much on a dinner party, you’re very likely to look at your empty bank account the next day and declare, “Never again.” To avoid this, choose one or two expensive items—a high quality cut of meat, for example, or a really nice cheese to serve at the end of the meal—and supplement those with less expensive items that you dress up in smart ways. Even if you spend very little money on a dinner party, people are often so happy just to have dinner surrounded by friends and wine and food, it doesn’t really matter. As long as you care about the food that you’re making, people will walk away happy.
3. Shopping for everything in one place. Food tastes better when it has a story, and that’s especially true at dinner parties. It’s fine to get your basic ingredients at the local grocery store: your flour, your sugar, your butter, even your olive oil. But it makes a huge difference, not just to how the food tastes but how your guests experience it, when you make a special trip to a great local baker for the bread, to the farmer’s market for the salad, to a renowned butcher for the meat. People positively gobble it up when you tell the story of a particular dish; if you make a smoked salmon spread, for example, it will go over much better to say “I bought the smoked salmon at Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side of Manhattan” than if you say “the smoked salmon was on sale at the local Stop n’Save.”
4. Going crazy with dinnerware. The other thing that keeps people from having frequent dinner parties is the prospect of a huge pile of dishes at the end. There are two ways to avoid this: (1) do dishes as you go, even in-between courses; and (2) don’t use too many plates, forks, and glasses over the course of the meal. It’s ok to tell people to hold on to their forks between the salad course and the entrée; you’re not a restaurant. Same goes with wine glasses: sure, it may rattle the oenophiles among you to have a lingering drop of white wine in the red that’s being poured next, but the average person won’t notice. And cleaning six wine glasses is much more pleasant than cleaning 12 or, worse, 18.
5. Cooking something that you’ve never cooked before. This is a tricky one because if there’s a really elaborate recipe that requires 12 hours of work, you’re not going to make it for a weeknight dinner. You’ll want to invite people over to experience the fruits of your labor. Only: don’t do it. Chances are, if it’s something really outside of your comfort zone, you have no idea how it’s going to turn out. And when it turns out bad, your nervous breakdown may be entertaining but it won’t leave your guests wanting to come back for more. Stick to what you know and if you do want to try something new, try it within the parameters of what you know. So, for example, if you know how to make homemade ravioli with a specific filling and you want to try a new filling, by all means do. But if you’ve never made ravioli before, is it smart to try it for the first time at a dinner party? The answer would be “no.”
6. Choosing dishes that must be cooked right before serving. You know the old show business adage: “Don’t let them see you sweat”? This also applies to dinner parties. You don’t want your guests to be mingling politely in the living room while you dart around the kitchen, clanking pots and pans and screaming out curse words that no one should utter in polite society. That kind of dinner party has two negative consequences: (1) it leaves your guests feeling guilty that they’re just sitting there while you tear your way around the kitchen; and (2) it leaves your guests feeling neglected that this person they came over to spend time with is so occupied in the kitchen away from them. The ideal dinner party dish, then, is something that you can make ahead or something that cooks for a long time in the oven; asking very little of you once you remove it. Choose braises, roasts, and stews over anything that has to be sautéed, stir-fried or seared at the last minute. Do as much as you can ahead and then you won’t feel like an employee serving guests at a restaurant; you’ll feel like a guest yourself. And that makes everything much more fun.
7. Rushing. As the cook at a dinner party, you are much more aware of what’s going on in the kitchen than anyone else. And so, as you sit and chat over cocktails, you’re hyper-aware that those dinner rolls that you popped into the oven just as your guests arrived are going to be ready in 20 minutes and that if you don’t eat them within 20 minutes of them coming out of the oven, they won’t be as hot and delectable as they’re supposed to be. And so you might try to speed things along, privileging the food over the pace. That’s a mistake. Pace matters just as much as anything else; you want the evening to unfold naturally, gradually. If it means that the food suffers a little, that’s ok. The point is that your guests don’t feel rushed; you want them to linger over the meal the way they’d linger if they were visiting a really cool hotel bar. It’s as much about the atmosphere as it is about anything else.
8. Pointing out everything that’s wrong. I’m guilty of this and I imagine many passionate home cooks do the same thing. You’re so focused on getting things perfect that when things aren’t perfect you point out all the mistakes to your guests. “This rice is overcooked,” you might say as you take the first bite. Or: “I should’ve taken the meat out earlier. It’s not as juicy as the one I made last week.” The effect of this is obvious: it casts a dark cloud of disappointment over a meal that might otherwise have been a bright and sunny experience. I imagine we do this because we think that our guests are noticing all these failings and we’re trying to intercept their judgment. But you’re forgetting that your guests don’t have the same frame of reference that you do; if the chili isn’t as good as the chili you made last week, they don’t know that. And there’s no reason to tell them unless you want to sour their dining experience.
9. Treating dessert as an afterthought. It’s tempting to throw together a simple dessert for a dinner party—maybe berries and whipped cream, or a store-bought cake that you doctor with powdered sugar—but, in my experience, if there’s any course that rewards hard work, it’s dessert. Think about it: the meal is almost at an end and this is your final gesture. This is the thing people will leave your apartment or house thinking about; you want it to count. My advice, then: when cooking for a dinner party, make the dessert first. It doesn’t have to be something wildly elaborate (we’re not talking about making a wedding cake here) but something that you make with love and care; like a seasonal pie, for example, still warm and served with good vanilla ice cream. Even if you make brownie batter, put it in a baking pan and store it in the refrigerator until the main course is served; you can have a hot brownie sundae in a matter of minutes and, when dessert comes, your guests will be wowed.
10. Letting your guests help you with the dishes. It’s tempting, at the end of the meal, when you collect all the plates and forks and wine glasses and someone says, “Can I help you with the dishes?” to say: “Hell yes!” But that would be a mistake. The point of a dinner party is to ceaselessly give of yourself. The high that you get from this act is entirely dependent on your disposition: are you the kind of person who likes to serve others? Who gets a thrill when you make other people insanely happy? If you don’t have that gene, you probably don’t enjoy cooking either. And that’s fine but then don’t host a dinner party. Dinner parties are for those who relish the opportunity to create a meaningful experience for other people, from the moment they walk through the door to the moment they say goodbye. Don’t make them say goodbye with dish pan hands; send them home with leftovers and, once they go, do those dishes before you go to bed. By the time your head hits the pillow, you’ll be experiencing the tired euphoria that only comes to those who host the kind of dinner parties that people rave about. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll already be planning the next one.
Such is the life of a consummate dinner party host.