Updated: Dec 28, 2022
You suddenly find yourself hosting a serious dinner for 14 in your modest suburban home. You can do this… without footmen or butlers.
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Think back to Chef Astor’s pre-service speech before his spectacular “Feast of the Autumn.” His restaurant staff was nervous, but the wise chef reassured them– a successful dinner party, he explained, was a mix of making the easy look difficult and the difficult look easy. Want to WOW your guests? Do as Chef Astor did– make the food look like you slaved for hours and your service look practically effortless. To help you pull this off, here are some useful tips from my own personal and hard-earned experience. First, some basics–
REMEMBER THAT STRESS IS CONTAGIOUS.
Your guests can’t possibly enjoy themselves while watching you work your ass off. Choose a menu that allows you to prepare the hardest stuff ahead of time. (Concrete menu formats to follow in Part 3.)
YOUR HOUSE IS NOT A RESTAURANT…
And you are not a waiter. Yes, you can produce restaurant-grade (or WAY better) food at home… but you can’t be expected to offer multiple entree choices cooked to order. Announce your menu ahead of time, perhaps as an artistic appendix to the invitation. If someone has a dietary concern, you can either A.) try to accommodate it, within reason; B.) suggest that they bring their own food; or C.) tell them to pound sand. On a related note–
…NOR IS YOUR HOUSE A BAR.
The alcohol needs of most any civilized gathering can be met with JUST 3 open wine bottles– a red, a white, and a rosé. (And it’s certainly easy to keep beer on hand if you know of someone’s specific preference.) If someone feels the urgent need for a frozen mezcal margarita with sea salt or maybe a specific micro-brew draft, tough crap. Worth noting is that reasonably-priced sparkling wine covers a lot of territory during the pre-dinner period.
NO GATHERING EVER HAD TOO MUCH ICE…
Sometimes you have to keep cold things cold, or else maybe get things cold fast. A large, inexpensive camping cooler is a perfect way to keep a large quantity of ice readily available.
…NOR A CUTTING BOARD OR MIXING BOWL THAT WAS TOO BIG.
You don’t need to turn your house into a restaurant, but commercial-grade cooking and serving equipment makes large dinner parties doable. Take my advice from a few months ago and SHOP LIKE A PRO at restaurant supply stores, either brick-and-mortar or online. Get a big-ass mixing bowl and a similarly large cutting board. Someday you'll thank me.
KEEP HOT FOOD HOT…
Short on oven or stove-top space? Even in winter weather, your patio grill can be useful. (Ask Santa for a large, heavy-duty rectangular grill this Christmas.) Get some coals glowing, cover the top with heavy-duty foil, and you have a perfectly good hot plate. Fill a hotel pan or two with boiling water, and put your stew or sauce or soup in stainless steel inserts, which are conveniently sold as fractions (¼, ⅙, ⅛) of hotel pans. If you haven’t sprung for their accompanying covers, just use the restaurant-sized heavy-duty foil you needed to cover the grill.
…AND KEEP COLD FOOD COLD.
Your Garage makes a perfectly good walk-in cooler in the colder months. This entails another purchase, something no one outside the restaurant business would likely consider but is nonetheless a brilliant expenditure– a rolling sheet pan rack. This one deserves its own picture–
Now, before you dismiss this suggestion as crazy, consider the following– this rolling rack holds a LOT of plates all ready to go; even in the summer you can keep cold food cool with tubs of ice and a shower curtain; you can use it in your garage for everything from tool storage to plant potting; and it has wheels, so you can conveniently move it around. And finally, it makes a convenient and excellent storage facility for all the other restaurant equipment that I’m suggesting you buy.
Again, think big. Diner-style restaurants have to serve a lot of coffee, often to many customers at the same time. If they can do it, so can you. No need to go whole hog here, but a Bunn® Commercial Pour-Over (not plumbed in) Coffee Maker is a wonderful addition to any java lover’s home. I DO recommend searching eBay for a used version, the older the better– back in the day, these- like most commercial equipment- were built to last for decades AND be repaired, if necessary.
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Now let’s get down to a few specifics–
DEVELOP A HOLISTIC, MULTI-COURSE MENU.
Soup covers a lot of ground and makes a perfect first sit-down course. (Make sure you serve it HOT!) Just remember– if you are serving an entree with a creamy sauce, complement it with a non-creamy soup. Likewise, try to avoid using the same prominent ingredient in multiple dishes.
HAVE YOUR DUCKS IN A ROW.
All of your necessary plates, glasses, and silverware should be counted, polished, and ready beforehand. The more you have your serving strategy all figured out in advance, the less you’ll have to improvise (often quite stressfully) on the fly.
ALLOW FOR PRE-DINNER MINGLING.
A stand-up course with a few appetizing nibbles (like this) and two or three open wine bottles is a nice transition between arrival and the first sit-down course. It also allows you, the host, time to finalize your preparations.
FOR THE MAIN COURSE, PLATE THE MEAT (OR FISH) BUT PASS THE SIDES.
This gives every guest something on the plate and avoids the awkwardness of passing a heavy platter around a cramped table. It also affords flexibility for individual preferences.
HAVE TAKEOUT CONTAINERS READY…
I always cook more than enough to feed everybody, and I take it as a compliment when people want to bring my cooking home with them. I also don’t care to store a bunch of prepared food that I might never get to.
…AND HAVE A DISPOSAL STRATEGY READY TO GO.
Have larger-than-usual receptacles ready for composting, disposal, and recycling. Scrape and stack the used dishes so your kitchen doesn’t look like a war zone. This will free you up for post-dinner mingling, make your guests more comfortable, and make the ultimate clean-up a less daunting task.
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This is a good start, but there is more, so much more, to elegantly feeding a large gathering in your home. In the next installment (DINNER PARTIES, Part 2) we’ll discuss some specific tactics, and in Part 3 we'll get to some actual menus. You can do this!