28 July 2010

Notes on Dinner Party Management

For about a year now, I've wanted to do a comprehensive guide on hosting dinner parties. I keep starting and then deleting it all, because it always goes in a weird direction. Sort of a grouchy Kitchen Confidential angle, which is unfortunate because I really enjoy hosting dinner parties and have it down to such a science that the past few have been practically effortless and I find myself missing the exciting, nervous energy that such events used to evoke.

Here's a few odds and ends that have survived the editing process. I could write an entire book on Why I Don't Invite Children, but I'm trying to steer the project into more positive directions.

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I've hosted about two dozen dinner parties, which I define as six or more guests and multiple courses with matching wines throughout the evening. These were events where I planned the whole menu and prepared everything during the party. Not only was I cooking and hosting, but I was also eating, drinking, and participating along with everyone else. It's a delicate balancing act, and I've learned valuable lessons like putting the smallest portions on my own plate and just going with small pours of wine throughout.

If you haven't done this before and you want to be prepared for hosting a dinner party, I'd suggest the following training exercise:

1) Get ready for a regular weekend dinner with your significant other or spouse, and lay out all the ingredients and equipment you will be using. Mise en place is very important to a smooth dinner party.

2) An hour before dinner, have your special someone randomly remove 25% of the ingredients and equipment and move them out of the house.

3) Fifteen minutes before dinner, a random and unknown number of people show up to join you. At least one person must be a vegetarian, one person must have specific religious objections to certain root vegetables, and one must be allergic to all ingredients that begin with the letter B.

4) If at this point you break down in deep, heaving sobs while an improvised couscous-eggplant casserole slowly dries out in the oven, I would recommend going back and reading The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. You have to learn to accept the absurdity of certain impossible situations.

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I don't think you can really pull off a proper dinner party unless you've had some colossal screwups and failures in the kitchen. Everybody messes up occasionally, but doing it in front of a bunch of friends, family, and lovely young ladies you're trying to impress is different than burning the toast while making breakfast alone.

I've always admired the first lesson from Juggling for the Complete Klutz. It's called "The Drop". You take one beanbag and drop it on the floor. Since learning how to juggle will involve a lot of objects dropped on the ground or flung across the room, you might as well go ahead and get that out of the way. The same goes for cooking. I'd like to see more beginner advice for things like hollandaise sauce. The first thing you do is make a really buttery set of scrambled eggs. The next thing you make is a nasty egg-lemon soup. Between the two extremes lies the ideal mixing and gentle temperature necessary for a proper sauce.

I'm going to list some of the mistakes I've made during dinner parties. In every case I managed to recover and soldier on, only because I'd previously made similar mistakes and had learned to improvise:

1) Slicing off the tip of my left thumb and going on to cook an entire Thanksgiving dinner for six using only my right hand. Thrusting my entire arm into the turkey to remove it from the brine and rinse it off in the bathtub is now a cherished holiday memory.

2) Making a delicate and intricate garnish out of various herbs and vegetables, then forgetting about it until everyone is halfway through the course.

3) Grilling a leg of lamb and realizing at the last minute that I didn't have any sort of meat thermometer. Lots of poking and prodding and hoping for the best.

4) Desperately trying to make homemade mayonnaise to show off to a group of folks who had never had the condiment freshly made. It's a simple emulsion of egg yolks, oil, and an acid like vinegar or lemon juice. Without the egg yolks, the whole thing will not come together as a sauce, and you'll be standing there like me for five minutes with a mixer, getting nowhere.

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Any interest in further, more detailed musings on the subject? Further topics include Assembling a Good Mix of People, The Importance of Preparation, and How to Get Guests to Help Wash Dishes Between Courses. Or do you have your own cautionary tales of dinner parties gone awry? Go crazy in the comments.


Allen said...

Lets us not forget a good blinding ass thunderstorm, followed by power failure and the empty propane bottle. Sterno to the dinner party rescue and candles to set the mood.

fredric koeppel said...

i once, in front of dinner guests of course standing in the kitchen, tried three times and failed three times to make creme anglaise in a double boiler. the third attempt was accompanied by a long uncomfortable silence

another time, making salt-crusted pheasant with foie gras sauce, i saw a pan sitting on the counter that looked used and dirty, so I quickly washed it, only to realize that that WAS the foie gras sauce.

Benito said...


That reminds me that I need to stock up on a few cans of sterno to keep on hand for emergency use. You could probably make a decent pan sauce in a chafing dish.


Love the pheasant story, especially how much a bird like that benefits from some additional fat when served. I was deglazing a pan once by just running a little tap water in the pan, and then out of habit I poured in some dishwashing soap.

The classic cooking mistake: spending hours carefully making stock, and then straining it right down the drain so you're left with nothing but mushy vegetables and bones.


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