While it might be easiest to hire a chef like Ben Kramer to prepare a sustainably sourced meal for you and your closest friends, that isn’t always an option. And besides, hosting your own dinner party is fun! While Ben’s experience spans from cooking for 4,000 people three times a day at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, to doing a one-time service for Table for 1200, to cooking for a couple in their home, he says “it’s all the same system, it just scales up or scales down.”
The idea of preparing a meal for your closest friends at home can certainly be daunting, especially when you likely don’t have the space of a restaurant kitchen to prepare a meal, or the time of a full-time chef to cook an elaborate meal, take it from Ben – “it’s all planning.”
So, how can you host a dinner party without stress, headaches, or setting off the fire alarm? The first step is to pour yourself a cup of tea or coffee (or a stiff drink, if it’s Friday), sit down with a pen and paper, and create a plan for your evening. “People feel like they don’t have time, so they just start something, but if you take ten minutes to think it through, you’ll save yourself so much time in the long run.” Giving yourself time in advance to think everything through will drastically reduce the chances of hiccups and accompanying panic the night of your dinner party. So too will cutting yourself some slack in terms of your own expectations for the evening – in fact, a dinner party is more than just the food you serve, but also includes the atmosphere you cultivate and the conversation and laughter you share with your guests.
As Ben noted, “at the end of the day if you have people over and you slightly overcook a roast, it’s going to be okay, nobody’s going to die.”
Perhaps the most obvious question: what are you going to serve? Think of the meal you’d like to prepare, break it down into its dishes or components, and then break that down into a list of ingredients. The more planning you can put into this stage, the more organized you’ll be, and the less opportunity for something to get missed or cause you grief. Ben even breaks his grocery list down according to his grocery store’s layout so he can quickly and easily grab everything he needs. Making your life easier is the name of the game, so take some time to plan. This is especially the case if you don’t have a lot of space to work in – ensuring you have everything you need on hand and are organized the evening of your party will help you navigate hosting in a smaller space.
While the inclination to prepare an impressive, complicated meal for your guests is understandable, a dinner party isn’t the best time to try something new. As Ben noted, your guests aren’t expecting Michelin-star food at your home. Rather, choose something you enjoy and that you have some experience in preparing. Are you really good at making tacos? Serve tacos! Are you a master on the BBQ? Then fire it up!
Once you have your meal planned, do a mental walk-through of your guests’ experience from the moment they walk in the door, even if it seems obvious. Do you have somewhere to put everyone’s coats? Do you have enough plates and wine glasses? Do you have something to offer guests to drink? Do you have somewhere for people to sit? Is your bathroom clean? As mentioned, a dinner party is more than just the meal you prepare – it’s important that the whole experience is inviting and relaxing, and the more you plan the less stressed out you’ll be. “It’s just food,” Ben laughed. “It’s easy for me to say because that’s what I do, but I think when you realize that it’s really about the company and having a good time, that takes a lot of pressure off the other stuff.”
Hosting people in a small space can feel stressful when you’re trying to accommodate guests at the same time as you’re preparing food, so Ben suggests doing as much preparatory work in advance as possible. One of the benefits of cooking in a big restaurant is that not only is everything in its place, but so much of the work is done in advance, from chopping vegetables to making sauces. So, give yourself some time to do this prep work before your guests show up – you can chop vegetables the night before or make salad dressing even days in advance – so you’re able to chat and spend time with guests.
This advance prep work will also give you more time to think about more minor details, from how you’d like to set your table to the playlist you have in mind. In terms of your meal’s presentation, Ben suggests keeping in mind three things: colour, texture, and flavour. Keeping a variety of colours – rather than a meal that is, say, entirely beige – will be more appealing.
Ensuring there is a contrast in textures – both soft and crunchy – will help avoid a meal falling flat. And making sure flavours work together – a result of preparing a meal you’ve prepared before – will guarantee that guests will enjoy their dinner. That said, stressing about presenting a dish like those you’d see on the Food Network is not worth your time. Ben said “I would never sacrifice taste or experience for visual. I’d rather food go out hot than spend 45 minutes assembling something.”
In the end, the most important thing to remember is that dinner parties and cooking for your friends and family is fun. Planning and preparation will reduce stress, and nobody is expecting you to prepare restaurant-quality food. Thinking of your dinner party as an experience beyond just the meal you serve will ensure that everyone has a good time. And, as Ben notes, “if it doesn’t work out, order a pizza.”