The Dinner Party
(Typical Dinner Party Host winning at hosting duties)
The Dinner Party is not for the feint of heart. It’s not something you unceremoniously march toward like a death row inmate at his final execution (I.E. also like hosting Thanksgiving Dinner). No, The Dinner Party is your moment of triumph. It’s where you stand before a hand picked lucky few and declare your mastery over the cosmic forces of the culinary universe while drinking in their adulation. You stand in the same circle as Pharaohs and Caesars… Living Gods adorned by their subjects.
In summary, this ain’t a regular ole’ meal. All that stuff I said up there, the opposite is very true if you screw this up.
(Marie Antoinette is famous for the most disastrous dinner party in history. After every dish but dessert was ruined she offered only cake to her guests. She was executed by beheading. As the portrait to the left suggests, bitch didn’t give a fuck by that point in the party.)
How do you prepare to tackle the awe and mystery of the Dinner Party? Few steps I recommend you consider when planning this event. They’re the same ones I take into account every time.
1) Am I worthy– This probably is the most important thing to consider and it’s probably the hardest one to answer. You don’t just hold your own evening in your hands here, but you’re responsible for the evenings of several people at this point, likely ones that you consider friends and have an interest in entertaining. So there’s a lot at stake. You need to make people feel at home, feed them something interesting and delicious and then you have to occupy them for a while. The goal is to create a memorable event. Not make them question whether they should have just stayed home and watched True Blood or something. People are deliberately handing over to you a five to six hour chuck of their lives. You need to be able to make it worth their while. If you can’t answer this question with the most confident YES possible, step back. You are not worth.
2) Threshold- What can my venue handle before breaking? This is a similar consideration to some of the questions asked in our catering article. But there’s more on the line here than with a typical catered event. With catering, people are just there to be fed. The food at a catered event is not the purpose of the gathering. Its not the center piece. For a dinner party it is. So you need to understand what your venue can and cannot do. Look at your kitchen, take stock of how many pots and pans you actually own. How many burners does your stove top have? How much room is there to prep food? Will the kitchen mess be hidden from diners or does it need to be entirely cleaned up and presentable? But wait… there’s more! Its not just the kitchen. Presumable this is going to be fork and knife food so you’ll need table space. If you don’t have it consider smaller sized pieces of food that don’t need the knife. How much sitting room do you have for when people aren’t eating? They can’t just stand around the whole time. Serving area for food? Where do you put the finished product for people to get at and is your venue set up in such a way as to accommodate that line of people? What rooms will these people be in and are they comfortable? Can they even handle the amount of people you intend on stuffing in there? Alcohol? You’re menu may need some as an ingredient but assuming you’re having adults over you’ll need it for them to drink. Do you have enough glasses? Fuck! I’m having a panic attack just writing this!
3) The Plan- You need to be smart to pull this off. You can’t wing a Dinner Party. I start planning the next Dinner Party as the the current one is winding down. I’m setting dates, confirming times, feeling out tastes and still trying to work in a chance to enjoy my beautiful company. At least three days before the actual party I’ll figure out the basics of the menu and then assess the kitchen stock. I’ll know what I need and budget for it. What I have on hand will form the structure of what I’ll serve and what I shop for is just to patch up any wholes in what my meal is missing. This is also when you have to look inward and be honest with yourself. What can you actually do well. I’m a very cook. I’ve been blessed with a lifetime of good people and good culinary experiences that have helped make me into a very competent kitchen professional. But I suck at baking. I can pull off a few basic baked recipes but nothing fancy at all. Also, I have no experience with cooking Asian Cuisine. Just not something that I’ve had a chance to experiment with in my time. Again, I could probably pull off a few basics but that’s it. My plan would never include Asian Cuisine or Baked Goods. Dinner Parties are about playing to your strengths. You can experiment but you have to have some knowledge base for what you’re attempting.
4) The Entertainment- Look, Dinner is not the only thing these people will be doing. Remember it’s an event, not just a meal. You have them the entire night. Use that time to make the people you care about happy. Seriously now, if all you do is feed them it’s more or less just you showing off and then shoving them out. Chances are, before the first Dinner Party, these people already know you’re a decent cook either through conversation or because you’ve cooked something for them before. For me, this is a chance to be good to people I really care about. That means entertaining them. You don’t need to be a comedian or a worldly traveler to do that. If anything, of the people I’ve been hosting for recently I’m probably the quieter one because I’m the newer friend. You just need to know them, at least a little bit, care about the time they spend with you and engage them in genuine conversation. But just jamming a handful of people into a space and making them talk can be a bit awkward too. Especially for anyone that may be the shy type. So having something to do help. But of course, know your crowd. For us its usually Hookah and hot drinks on the patio. Board Games too. I learned a lot about a really great woman while watching her solve a murder in Clue. Conversely I suspect she’d be great at hiding my body and getting away with it so I’ll never ever cross her.
It was Colonel Mustard with a Pipe in the Conservatory I believe.
5) The Patrons- Know your crowd. I’ve said it before but I really want to hit it home here. These are your friends. My friends are deeply important to me so this is an easy consideration for me. Know their tastes, know their hobbies, know about what’s going on in their lives. How else do you expect to pull off a meal they’ll enjoy and provide them with a fun evening if you don’t.
6) The Alcohol- Booze is different things to different people. For High Schoolers it was the taboo that helped you understand how good a party or wasn’t. For the collegiate aged party goer it was a justification for most of what you did on the weekend. And now for us adults its the wonder tonic we suck down to forget what happen between Monday and Friday. Look, if there are three or more adults in the room its a certainty that they will soon have a glass of wine in their hands. Its pretty much a defense mechanism. Booze isn’t cheap so try and consider what you will be drinking that night rather than having an entirely open bar. Unless someone else is paying for the booze. Than, you know, experiment. If you always wondered what Rumchatta and Absinthe tasted like than go to town. I suggest wine though. Its easiest on the host, cheaper than multiple bottles of other things and women have evolved a natural predilection toward drinking it. So that’s nice. The alternatives to wine are either beer or cocktails. I’m not a big beer drinker, but since craft beers are all the rage right now its not a bad way to go. But if you’re going to go out of your way to do a craft beer at a party at least have a reason for what you bought beyond how cool the label was. Why, because 65% of all craft beer tastes like a bag of angry dick so you should at least be able to justify your choice in some pretentious fashion and sound convincing. Cocktails are going to eat into your budget severely and they require someone to make them. If you have the cash and the spare hands than go for it. It adds a lovely personal touch to party.
7) Time- You’re going to need about four hours to do this. At least. That includes prep, cooking, venue set up and oh… you need to put pants on. So don’t forget to dress yourself too. Maybe shower, your call. Unless you’re serving Bagel Bites (I’ll come to your party. Please invite me!) you need to be in your kitchen for about two and a half of those four hours. The rest of it needs to be spent on getting your venue ready and on yourself becoming a presentable host. You also want to use this time to check a few details. Look at your dishes and silverware. Is it actually clean? Check your glasses, are they gross? Are the floors dirty? Does your lounge area need cleaning up? Here’s something important to consider, the instant your guests leave they will be talking about you and without you around to hear what they’re saying they won’t be holding back. I’d prefer for them to spend most of that gossipy time on the food, good company, thoughtful attire, entertainment and welcoming atmosphere rather than pet hair, stacks of news paper and dirty servingware.
8) The Meal- So here you are. Empty pots and a fridge full of possibility… and danger.
Once more into the fray.
Into the last good fight I’ll ever know.
Live and die on this day.
Live and die on this day
(Pretty much me about ten seconds before I open the fridge and get started)
If you know your meal you’ll know how this needs to be done and in what order. Nothing can come out too soon. A lot of food doesn’t hold up well just sitting around. Even in a warmer things tend to break down. Plan to have your guests eat thirty minutes after arriving. That means you may not be able to do more than just greet them on the way in. That’s ok. Get them in, say hello, break out some wine and let them mingle with each other. You can entertain in the kitchen too. Most of your work should be done by now and people love to see how it all came together. Let them watch a few finishing touches happen. Or, maybe you want to give one of them something to do. There’s no better way to get a little time with someone special than to bring them in the kitchen and give them something easy to do with you.
9) The Aftermath– Clean up needs to happen at all stages of the party. The reason is, you will need more space as the event unfolds. I try to have as much disposable servingware as possible. The plates and utensils should be real of course but serve the food out of disposable pans. It takes up too much space in the sink otherwise. Take peoples’ plates, clear a few things. You can worry about the major cleaning later. Remember these are your friends and you want to spend time with them, but you don’t want them surrounded by clutter either.
And that’s about it. Those are all the considerations I take into account in order to pull off a great party. Any and all jokes aside, if I invite someone to a party they’re people I care about. I give a lot of myself to pull these off but I don’t give it a second thought because I cherish all of those people deeply. Everything up there just helps me make sure I’m showing them how I feel. That’s my approach to a Dinner Party, but I’d love to hear yours.