I think of myself as a maker of experiences. The most satisfying of all creative enterprises for me, acts of writing and design included, are those tailored toward giving. Those that represent a fecundity of mind and spirit and that are crafted for the express purpose of giving others a unique and memorable experience. You know that lingering “feeling” that latches on to you after finishing the last paragraph of an exceptional novel, viewing an exquisitely powerful photograph, or savoring the last bite of an intoxicating meal—that’s a feeling I love to chase. Not just for myself, but for others, as well. While it is true that writing is probably the strongest of my creative abilities, I also find it immensely gratifying to give to others through my food. And to create experiences that center around gastronomic pleasure. That, of course, is why the art of entertaining is so important to me.
On a practical note, knowing how to cook and serve a meal, whether a romantic dinner for two or a holiday feast for the entire family, is an essential skill. I know it can seem daunting for those who either don’t like to cook or don’t have much experience in the kitchen. But being able to welcome others into your home and create an experience that’s designed to make them feel special is, I believe, its own reward. (It is also perfect for adding a level of charm and sophistication to any date.) The key to the art of entertaining is in the details. Both attention to detail and timing (I’ll get to that below) really are everything.
Here are some tips that I think make the process of entertaining easier. Naturally, they’ll work best the further in advance you begin planning. If it’s an impromptu dinner party you’re dealing with, you will probably be forced to engage your creative abilities and work, largely, with what you have on hand. If you’re anything like me, that’s part of the fun.
Cook what you know.
An important meal is not the time to try something bold and brand new, especially if you are just learning how to cook. It might be tempting to want to impress your guests with a restaurant-quality 6-course meal, but if this is only your fifth time in the kitchen, don’t do it. Attempting a meal that far exceeds your skill level will, most likely, not end well for either you or your guests. To keep yourself from becoming stressed out and intimidated, do a trial run of a new recipe (if you really feel you must try something new) a week or more in advance.
I recommend working with ingredients and flavors you know. If Italian food is your forte, by all means, do an Italian menu. Even if you have little experience working in the kitchen, pick flavors with which you are familiar. You’ll be more relaxed that way. And do pick a simple recipe if you are a new cook. Simple food that tastes good will always beat a complex dish done poorly.
Visualize your guests’ experience.
The best way I’ve found to account for all the particulars of an event is to visualize your guests’ experience. Pretend you are one of your guests, from the moment they arrive (Where will you hang their coats?), through appetizers and cocktails (Will you have the time and set up to make everyone a fancy cocktail, or will a flute of Prosecco with a raspberry be the simplest, most elegant option?), to dinner (Will you plate your meal or serve it family style? Will there be enough room on the table for serving dishes, place settings, water, wine, and/or other beverages?), to dessert (How effortlessly can you transition from dinner to dessert?).
Magic hides in the details.
From the volume of your dinner music, to the folds of your napkins and the garnish on your cocktails, remember that the magic is in the details. As a general rule, I never, ever serve a special meal, of any size or for any occasion, without designing a creative table setting. (I really don’t care for the word, “tablescape,” but if I must…) This is what will set you apart and really make your guests feel special. It is a huge opportunity to “wow” them. Go to Pinterest for inspiration. There are also plenty of crafty, DIY blogs and websites that give excellent tips for this kind of themed home decor.
Make sure you consider the little things, too, like the type and volume of background music (if you’ll have any), how you’ll present your appetizers, and any garnishes you’re using, either on food or drinks.
Rehearse. Timing really is everything.
The last thing you want while your guests are enjoying themselves is to be racing around in the kitchen. You need to pay very close attention to the timing of your courses. The further ahead of time you map out cooking and serving times (Do you have an effective way to keep some dishes warm if they are done ahead of schedule?), the easier the big event will be, which leads me to my final point…
Make it look effortless.
You want to be able to enjoy the meal you’ve planned with your guests. Obviously, if this is a dinner for two, you need to be at the table, not in the kitchen washing dishes or prepping dessert. Plan your menu accordingly.
I’ll give you an example: My mother and her boyfriend came to visit me last summer, and I offered to make them dinner on their first night in town. I knew they would be arriving later in the evening; so, I tailored my menu to fit our schedule. I chose a simple quiche with a salad because I was able to make the crust that morning and let it sit refrigerated until I had to roll it out that evening. The filling was very quick and easy to make. I just had to assemble the quiche and put it in the oven about 30 minutes prior to their arrival time. That gave us plenty of time for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres while the quiche cooled. I made an incredibly simple dessert, consisting of a store-bought lemon pound cake with macerated raspberry sauce, and whipped cream. I prepared the raspberries a few hours ahead of time; so, when it came time for dessert, all I had to do was slice the cake and whip the cream. Because I did all of the hard work well before my guests’ arrival, the kitchen was spotless (well, almost) when they walked in. What clean-up I did have afterward was minor. And, more importantly, I was able to spend the entire evening relaxing with my company instead of frantically preparing our meal.