Having previously discussed some practical tips for managing a large dinner party, we add a few more and then turn to the actual menu.
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You’re scheduled to prepare and serve a dinner for fourteen in your modest home. I’m here to help… I’ll be the voice in your head as we run through the necessary steps.
Do you actually have room for everyone?
It is now winter, or close to it, so unless you live in a climate far warmer than mine, outdoor seating is not an option. If you don’t have the actual physical space for all these people, then you are rightfully panicking. But if you are simply short of table space and chairs, we can fix this.
Ever look under a restaurant table? In many cases they are simply sheets of plywood with industrial-looking black iron table bases. If I were feeding your fourteen guests, I would put six of them around my regular dinner table and the other eight around a homemade restaurant table– a sheet of 4’ x 8’ ¾” birch-faced plywood (which is sturdy as well as nice and smooth) cut to a width of 40”. (The big-box hardware/lumber stores sell such material and can cut it and even deliver it, if needed.) Screw it to a pair of restaurant supply store table bases, add a tablecloth, and you’re in business! (Pro-tips: there are two standard kinds of bases– the ones with only two feet, which are obviously meant to be used in pairs; and free-standing bases with four feet, which can be used alone. I recommend getting a pair of four-footed bases for added stability. Also, position them a couple of feet in from the very ends for even more stability.)
Of course, you could also rent (or even purchase) a folding banquet table. Chairs? They don’t need to match, except in height. Beg, borrow, or rent the chairs you’ll need… the only requirements are that they are sturdy and moveable in case people need to step away from the table. Another option for the space-challenged is an informal dinner party with “lap food,” i.e., a buffet of culinary delights that can be eaten standing up or on sofas with one hand while the other holds the plate.
The big takeaways? 1.) Seating a large group is more possible than perhaps you realize; and 2.) Your menu must be compatible with your seating arrangements.
What’s your menu strategy?
Before we get to the actual items on your menu, it is important to step back and consider the big picture… in other words, strategize. Is there enough space for your guests to gather and chat before dinner? If so, a stand-up mingling course is a great transition to the sit-down dinner. If not, then serving a ready-made appetizer plate, soup, or salad as soon as people are seated is a classy touch. Might there be a main course that will be perfectly impressive and delicious but won’t require a lot of frantic work at the last minute? Quality braises (like, say, red wine pot roast or lamb shanks) mostly make themselves and free up the host for other tasks.
Have you thought of this… or this… or THIS?
In the forthcoming Part 3 of this series we’ll look at some specific menus. Meanwhile, here are some random points worth mentioning–
Be mindful that many people are on some sort of special diet, so announce your diet ahead of time. I generally avoid using gluten for guests. Jay Leno once quipped that a friend recently gave him a loaf of gluten-free bread… and that until then he never realized how delicious gluten is. I agree, and yet I’ve found that I can prepare most anything from the classic French repertoire without breadcrumbs or wheat flour. However, I have yet to find a viable substitute for real Italian pasta.
Don’t take chances with your menu. Make sure you’ve previously made whatever you’re serving your guests at least twice so that you have an intuitive grasp of the variables involved.
Keep in mind that there is rarely anything new under the culinary sun. If you think you’ve truly invented something, it is probably closer to a pre-existing recipe than you realize. If you still think you’ve come up with something original, please avoid naming it after yourself, because unless you are already a celebrity chef, you’ll likely become a punchline for the rest of your life.
Use a dinner party as an excuse to treat yourself to some new cooking or serving ware. I recommend hitting your local restaurant supply store for a large cutting board and mixing bowl for starters. While you’re there, consider picking up a case of wine glasses and enough plates for everyone if you don’t have them already..
Civilized dinner guests don’t show up empty-handed, so consider giving them a little guidance. For my birthday bash a few years ago, we knew that most people find me extremely difficult to shop for, so we recommended bringing a new pair of socks for donation to a homeless veterans support group.
When it comes to wine, think like a restaurant and avoid serving recognizable brands, i.e., the same ones floor-stacked and discounted at your local wine shop. Instead of the usual Californian suspects, look for not-so-famous wines from France, Spain, Italy, and Portugal. Keep in mind that “Chile” screams “cheap” in a way that “Argentina” does not. A knowledgeable wine geek in your wine shop is a wonderful asset.
And finally, what does that rocket ship in our heading have to do with your dinner party? Well, my generation grew up watching early NASA lift-offs, and so we are well familiar with the concept of the reverse timeline, i.e. the countdown. By launch time, the astronauts and their massive support organization were well-prepared and well-rehearsed for every task in the proper sequence and also every imaginable contingency. So for your next dinner party, take a page from the “Right Stuff” folks and work backwards from the moment of truth– when to shop for what, when to chill the white wine, when to start the pot roast, when to toss the salad, et cetera, and write it down in order.
May your dinner parties be as successful as the missions that put the footprints of a dozen men on the moon.