I have a confession. I love hosting a fancy dinner party. It makes no sense for a busy gal like myself. I cook for days, I barely sit down even during dinner, and cleanup is awful. Yet I love it anyway. My cooking skills are on display for everyone to see and praise, plus I get to personally judge my organization and time management. Why is that fun? I don’t know. When you’re a self-employed person, I guess you start coming up with weird ways to assess yourself. I also serve a LOT of booze, so it’s like my guests are all reliving college, but in a fancier way.
My annual fancy dinner party is coming up soon, so I thought I’d write a little series about it as I get prepared. I’ve been doing this since 2010, and shockingly they’ve all gone quite well. My cuisine has gotten better, and my timing last year was about perfect, so I think it’s a great time to share my secrets. Do you need to know how to cook to host a fancy dinner party? Yes. Don’t kid yourself on this one. Your only other option is to have someone else cook it, whether family, friend, or caterer, but then they might as well host it themselves, right? Luckily, if you follow my schedule, you’ll have plenty of time to learn.
Secret #1 – A fancy dinner party is not a weekly event.
I said my fancy dinner party is annual, and I’m not kidding. You guys, it is so much work. I’m a bookkeeper and I work with CPA’s who try to smother me in paperwork every March and April. That’s why I celebrate the end of tax season with something nice. My husband and I invite over 6-8 of our friends, tell them to dress up, and then serve them dinner. But, I don’t have time to do all the cooking and prep work every week, and he would probably balk at the cleaning if I tried. I’m not saying you can’t do it more than once a year, but if you’re serious about providing good food that you yourself cooked, you’re going to want a break in between.
Also, this may not be a secret, but fancy dinner parties are expensive to throw. I coupon from time to time, but we do alright for ourselves and I prefer not to spend my precious time driving from store to store looking for the best deal. What kind of ingredients do fancy foods have? The pricey kind. By only throwing one or two a year, you save yourself the hassle of trying to cut costs for every course. There’s also cleanup to think about. I try to be a green hostess when I can, but my husband and I agree we will not be using dishes we have to put through the dishwasher. Think about it. Five courses for ten people is fifty plates. Kill me now! But we’re being fancy, so we have to get the high quality disposable plates to make sure it looks nice.
Secret #2 – Practice, practice, practice.
The other important part of hosting your fancy dinner parties sparingly is the time you have to practice your courses. I legitimately give myself a year to find the recipes I want and perfect them. Actually, I keep a list of potential menus in my to-do list, so I could potentially be practicing courses for years before I wind up using some of those recipes. Sure, you could cook the four dishes you always cook and call it “fancy,” but people aren’t going to dress up for that. You should be serving elegant dishes you wouldn’t serve all the time, and that requires more than day-of practicing.
You might also want to start practicing your plating skills. Have you ever been to a fine dining establishment? The food doesn’t look the same way it does when you go to Chili’s or Outback. Plating food is not a natural skill, and I’m still not all that great at it. But, I get better every year. That’s because of practice! You don’t have to make anything fancy to practice plating. If you’re making a full meal one day, why not dress up the plate a little? By the time you get to hosting your party, you’ll have an idea of what you’re doing.
Secret #3 – Do not invite picky eaters.
Don’t invite the whole world, don’t invite people who couldn’t hold a conversation over their meal, and definitely, one hundred percent, don’t invite picky eaters. You are going to be so irritated if you spend a year working towards this beautifully plated meal and then your guests won’t even try it. I actually have rules when I host. I serve an amuse-bouche while I tell the guests the rules so it comes out nicer, but they’re pretty simple. Unless you’re allergic to it, you need to try it. I don’t care if people like it. I really don’t. What are the chances that ten people would all like every dish you serve? Not good, probably. But, oh man, if you won’t even try it, why did you come?
When you’re making up your guest list, this will pop into your mind. Maybe you will feel guilty if you have one friend you really want to invite, but you know she’ll tell your other friend you don’t want there. Oh well. Be an adult, just tell the other friend you don’t want to do all that work for people who aren’t going to eat it. In the past, I’ve invited two out of three of my very close coworkers. I’ve invited one of my next door neighbors but not the other. If they get all bitter about it, you can make something up. Say you got to choose one friend and your spouse got to choose one friend and that’s all you can fit at your table. Whatever. Just don’t do all that work for people who won’t appreciate it.
Secret #4 – Put thought into your menu.
You can go willy-nilly if you want to. Serve a cucumber salad, borscht, fried chicken, and a flan. See how that goes. Hint: It won’t be the best. I had no theme at all for my very first dinner party, other than that I found all my recipes on Food and Wine, but I’ve gotten better since then. Last year it was French, the year before was spring. Spring was actually one of my most successful menus. Every course featured a beautiful fruit or vegetable. This year I did… Wait for it… Disney! Yes, a Disney-themed fancy dinner party. Believe me, there was more thought put into this menu than any other one I’ve ever done, and it was awesome.
It’s not just a theme that matters though. You should decide ahead of time what kind of courses you want to put out. I do appetizers and a cocktail while people arrive and I finish up my prep. I serve an amuse-bouche to tell people the rules. Then I have a salad course, a soup course, a main course with a side, and dessert. Everything from salad on gets it’s own wine. That’s the one thing I have guests bring, by the way. I don’t want them cooking and ruining whatever theme I’ve got going, but they can bring the type of wine I tell them to. Anyway, you don’t have to follow my plan, but you should have your own. Don’t serve three soups and a cheese plate. Just don’t.
Coming up: Planning and Organizing
I said at the beginning this was going to be a series, and I meant it. You don’t want to sit here reading all day, do you? Maybe you’ve already started thinking about holding a fancy dinner party, and now you know what will make it successful. Next time we’re going to talk in detail about planning and organizing the party, because if it’s going to be successful, that needs to be a category all its own. Unless you have two ovens, it can get really tricky to get everything out on time, and that’s just one concern. Enjoy your week and I’ll be back soon!