Chef School – Lesson 7

Throwing a Dinner or Cocktail Party

I have a big dinner coming up this weekend. I am 1 of 24 featured publishers selected by Foodbuzz to give readers an inside look at a dinner. My concept is to highlight foods by region–US regions and couple those with US wines. Sounded like a swell idea, I’ve always been interested in determining how to pair foods and wine. There’s been a great deal of research involved, now that it’s done, I will share with you how I go about organizing similar events.

Here are the prep steps, as I see them:

  1. Select theme
  2. Set the  menu
  3. Guest list & Invitations
  4. Date & Time 
  5. Venue & Decor
  6. Shopping lists
  7. Prep work
  8. D-Day set up
  9. Putting it all together
  10. Enjoy your labour of love

First things first – Themes and Menus

The¬†first 3¬†¬†steps are interchangeable, but they should be the first things you take into consideration when planning your soiree. Depending on the type of event, say something informal like¬†a cocktail or Superbowl party, you can decide on menu items at any time because, most likely, you’ll have nibbles that will conform to most guests needs. If, on the other hand, you’re planning a more intimate dinner, then you need to make sure all guests will be comfortable with the planned menu.

The last is the scenario I’m faced with this time. I have a clear concept in mind, sorta, so my guest list was limited to friends who enjoyed food–old and new,¬† basic and exotic–as well as wine. I had to be deliberate about those I¬†invited, particularly since it was limited to 6 guests. When you know who will attend and you know their eating preferences, you’ll have an easy enough time determining the menu.

Guest List & Invitations

Who do you want to spend time with? What is the reason for your dinner party? Are you celebrating something or someone? These are some the questions to consider when you’re in the planning stages. Also keep in mind the size of your venue, make sure your guests will be comfortable.

Invitations:¬†this is entirely up to you and, to some extent, how formal the event is. I wouldn’t send evites¬†for a wedding reception or a 25th wedding anniversary. But evites are my favorite modus operandi. They’re easy, it allows me to know without a doubt who has received it, makes your guests’ lives simpler by simply hitting a quick reply button and there are so many designs available and it is environmentally friendly.

If you will be mailing paper invitations, choose a design that mimics your decor concept. Make sure you have the full names and correct addresses of your guests. Include an RSVP by date and mode (call you, send a card back, smoke signals). If you’re including an RSVP card, make sure you provide them with the stamp and have the cards addressed to you.

Time & Date

The date for this event was predetermined for me: February 27th. Since this will be an elaborate 8-course meal (yeah, I have NO clue what I was thinking about), I set the start time to 6:30pm. I’m assuming each course will take about 30 minutes from presentation to discussion. Keep your fingers crossed for me, will ya?

When you’re determining the time for your event, you will consider what meal will be served, how much preparation needs to happen while the guests are already there and then give them enough time to not only eat, but enjoy the course served, compliment the hostess, beg for the recipe, blah, blah.

Venue & Decor

Where will this shindig take place? At your home or a friend’s? A restaurant? Park? Again, the theme and guests will determine¬†the where. For me, I was thorn. I knew it had to be near a kitchen and that I wanted it to be homey and cozy. I had thoughts about having it at a friend’s home, she has more room than I do. The reality is that I will be preparing quite¬†a bit of the courses on the spot and most of the side dishes will be made the day of. Transporting pots, dishes, pans through Houston seemed Nightmare on Elm Streetesque. So, home it is. Our home. Where I know all my nooks and crannies. Where I know where all the pots and spoons are. How hot the oven cooks. You know, home.

As for decor, flowers are always a must. Flowers and candles make any room look and feel especially special and that’s how I want my guests to feel. I have a couple of standard vases I love and I pick up a few blooms from my local grocer. I’m not a terribly inspired floral arranger, but floors look good without the wanting for much. One arrangement on the coffee table–a medium sized¬†one. A couple of loose blooms in the bathrooms. Some tealights¬†strewn about the room and votives¬†on the table. Keep your flowers in the same color palette and you’ll have settings to die for.

Shopping Lists

I like ’em. I don’t always pay attention to them, but when it’s time for a dinner party, I’m militant about it. That’s because of my super short attention span. If I don’t pull out my list as soon as I walk into the market and proceed to check things off as I find them, I will, inevitably, leave a few things behind.

So, once I have tweaked the menu, I write down the ingredients for the various recipes. I check my pantry for items I may already have and then i make my way through the aisles of stuff.

I also make a list of any serving dishes, silver, dinner, barware¬†that may be needed for the event. That way I¬† make sure I find what’s missing, whether I borrow, steal or buy it. Well, not steal. I just wanted to see if you were still paying attention. Designate what entr√©e will be served in which dish/plate, and make a note of it. If you figure this out ahead of time D-Day will be a breeze.

Prep Work

The best part about a dinner party is getting to enjoy the company of friends and loved ones. That is why I  do my very best to do as much of the heavy lifting ahead of time. Make sure you have sides that will reheat well, even entrees. Desserts too.

This is also a good time to get all your dishes cleaned and ready. Load up the dishwasher for a quick rinse and set everything to the side. If you’re using fresh flowers, get them ready the day before. That will give the arrangements time to chill out and get comfy and gorgeous.

D-Day – The Set Up

If your event is at home, do any last minute¬†cleaning and freshing up your home¬† may need. Make sure the ambient temperature is cooler than normal–you will be running the oven or stove and you’ll have more people in your home than you usually do.

Start cooling your¬†wine or beer¬†bottles at least 3 hours earlier. Decide if you’d like to play some music and have the playlist ready to go. Set the table, put¬†out the flowers and candles. Get the ambience going.

Also, take a moment to determine¬†the sequence in which you need to reheat, toss or prepare any of the dishes you’re serving. Hopefully you’ve prepared some items ahead of time, make yourself a note of what needs to hit the oven or boiling water when.

Putting it all together

Say you’re serving a green salad, angel hair pasta with meat sauce, bread sticks¬†and warm apple pie. You would make the meat sauce the day before (it will taste WAY better too) and chill it. Make your crust the day before as well. Then the day of, you begin to heat your meat sauce about 20 minutes before guests get there. At the same time you fill a pot with water and put it on the stove over medium low heat to get the water warmed up.¬†The oven goes on after your first guest arrives to bake/reheat the bread sticks. After everyone has said hello, toss your salad greens, throw the bread in the oven and bring up the temperature of the water. Enjoy half your salad, go in the kitchen and throw in the pasta and come back to the table finish that yummy salad.

See? It’s all about being ready and timing the sequence of events. While everyone is eating, you can bake that pie.

Enjoy your labour of love

Pour yourself a tall one, mingle and giggle and enjoy your friends. Stop by on Sunday when my official 24, 24, 24 post will be up.

Cookingly (and entertaingly) yours,


3 thoughts on “Chef School – Lesson 7

  1. annibanani says:

    I wish , I could come………I know it will be FABULOUS as all theothers I have attended.. U truly are the Hostess with the MOSTEST! Have a GREAT time! Let us hear the menu afterward,so we can salivate!

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