From a Chef’s Perspective: Entertaining & Hospitality tips
Friends and customers often ask me, “If you’re a trained chef, why don’t you work in a restaurant kitchen?” It’s hard to fetch a response to that question that won’t lead them to believe that I have somehow “given up” on the restaurant world. I haven’t. (I still daydream about my little rustic restaurant with 24 seats where I pour wine and write menus and shoot Instagrams of runny egg yolks all morning.) In the meantime, I have found an amazing outlet to practice my passion for hospitality here at Lieb. The way I see it, every job I ever have is always going be a hospitality job to me –because I make it that way. I consider myself a hospitality “pro,” which means I can (and love) to do it ALL. I bring everything I have learned from the restaurant world into every job I have. Efficiency. Teamwork. Timeliness. Preparation. Speed. Grace. And unfortunately some stubborn persistence and over-ambitious ideas that I’m sure irritate my coworkers. All of these things are critical to be really successful in hospitality, and really in anything you want to do well. I am going to try my best to break down that knowledge into tips that can apply in a more intimate home entertaining setting.
The more the merrier? Sometimes. Make sure your guests can fit comfortably in your space, and you don’t overwhelm yourself with a headcount.
1) You have to want to do it. Period.
If you dread hosting get-togethers, and you cringe at the thought of having people in your home messing up your haven of cleanliness and order: don’t do it. One of the most important things I have learned in the last decade of working in hospitality is that guests KNOW when you’re stressed or unhappy. You can smile ear to ear, but they will always catch that twitch in your eyebrow when Aunt Maria doesn’t use a coaster on your new West Elm coffee table. The most successful events are run by hosts who LOVE to host. They want you to eat too much, ruffle the throw pillows and kick off their shoes, and they won’t be phased by any of the side effects of crowds in their space. So if hosting stresses you out, it’s OKAY not to do it! Instead, offer to help a friend or family member with their event. This way you can feel good about contributing some time and energy without the added stress of being in charge. I am not usually one to say “stay in your comfort zone” but this is something that will affect other people, and hospitality should be enjoyed by both the guest and the host. It does not succeed as a one way street.
Serving dinner? Buy yourself some time and keep your hangry guests nibbling with some cheese and snack plates around the space. Ask your cheeseshop manager to help you pick some great items that fit into your budget.
2) Prepare before you even think you have to.
Preparation prevents poor performance. This is the mantra of most professional kitchens I have worked in and should be the mantra for just about anything you want to do well. There are SO many great resources out there for party planning that it can all seem quite overwhelming. Everyone works differently, but I find the best way to plan an event is to start with a vision and work all the way back to the invitation. As a rule of thumb, I never ever plan an event (personally) that I have less than a month to plan. With a full-time job it’s just not realistic and I would be stressed out = see #1. Essentially you want to set yourself up so that the week before the event, everything except the cooking is DONE.
* How many guests would I like to have? Think: furniture needs, parking, invitations, invite, or warn the neighbors. (With this one, be realistic. If it’s wintertime and you only have indoor space, don’t invite so many people that they will be cramped or won’t have anywhere to sit if they would like to.)
* Is this a casual party or a sit-down meal? Think: food needs, beverage needs, stemware/tableware needs, check in on allergies, decide to cook, cater or potluck.
* Guest list building. Invite guests you feel are deserving of your efforts. With family events, you may have to include some difficult people because it’s the right thing to do. You don’t want your get together to start a war! If this is a small event and you worry that someone may feel hurt for not being invited, you should include “small, intimate gathering” somewhere on your invitation to let your guests know that this isn’t an open event. Personal tip: Give your guests a full 4 weeks’ notice (3 minimum), and make the RSVP date a full 7 days before the event. This will give you time to make edits in the amount of food you have to buy, chairs you need to rent, and maybe you can extend that open seat to any last minute friends you missed.
A personal recommendation: Do not send a spirit invite to someone you really don’t want to attend, or who you feel may get too drunk/cause problems. If they come, which they might, you will not be able to enjoy your own event and that is not fair! This event is for you too, ya know!
* List building & timing. If you’ve gone through all the points above, you probably have a list going of what you need to buy/borrow/rent. Once you think you have it all written down, give yourself a timeline. With a LOT of cushion. Take the time you think you need and then move everything (except food because perishable) up by an additional week. I mean it! You will feel on top of the world if you have everything paid for and ready to go well in advance. This also gives life enough time to throw you its inevitable curveballs (caterer cancels, rentals are late and WHY DOES NO ONE HAVE CARDAMOM??)
Give your guests some easy tasks like drizzling or sprinkling the final touches on food, pouring wine for guests, or refilling the ice at the drink station. Your guests who naturally gather in the kitchen want to help!
3) Ask for help where you tend to need it, before you need it.
I am not rich by any means. I am rich in all the ways that, like, the Buddhists tell you you should be. But I have learned that in many cases a few more dollars now will mean greater mental sanity later. In a restaurant setting, not anticipating the needs YOU will have can be the start of a horrible domino effect of things going wrong, and then you end up eating chocolate ganache in the walk-in refrigerator to keep the tears back. (That was just one time, I’ve curtailed that.) Planning an event can direct too much attention to the guests and not enough to you, the host. Some examples:
If you are stressed about set-up: Do it the day before. Always. I constantly worry about not having everything in place when people begin to arrive so I like to set up the party (and I mean, even placing the bowls down where I want to have nuts. Because I’m nuts.) If you can’t do it the day before, invite a friend over earlier the day of the party to help. No shame in that game.
If you tend to be stressed at the start of the party: Ask your closest friend or family member to come 30 mins early and be the “greeter” / coat-taker. A good friend would be more than happy to help with this, and most of your guests should meet your best friend anyway, right? This will allow you to float and spend time chatting with some of your new arrivals while balancing your to-do list.
If you tend to be stressed in the kitchen: Recruit your guests. Socializing at parties isn’t always a fun activity for everyone, and you will find those fidgety guests already standing in your kitchen. They are dying to have you hand them something to stir, so give them some lemons to cut – you get the idea.
Check out these clear disposable plates! Chic. And, more importantly, easy. (Recyclable!) Looking for an even more environmentally responsible option? Check out Verterra plates which are made from fallen palm leaves.
If you tend to be stressed during clean-up: Ok so I don’t recommend recruiting guests for this one. In my opinion, cleaning a house or kitchen should not be one of the party activities unless it’s my direct family hosting. If you don’t have a dishwasher and hate washing dishes (I’m raising my hand), don’t use real dishes. Just don’t. They make such gorgeous disposables these days (and environmental friendly! Check out Verterra!) that you are allowed to just admit defeat here. If you are hosting more than 25 guests (you brave soul, you), I would highly recommend shelling out a little dough for a cleaning service. Imagine a world where you wake up after your own party and your house is already cleaned for you?? I can. I have. It’s amazing and worth every penny. Shop around, though. I was able to have my kitchen and living areas cleaned for $75 after a pretty serious family holiday rager. Whatever you do, don’t live in denial about cleanup. It has to happen, and planning for it is important for the night to end on a high note – and stay there.
Don’t worry too much about the details, your guests just want to see YOU! Eat your food, and enjoy the company of your guests. Be present, and part of the party.
4) You are supposed to have fun, too.
The final tip may be the most important one. Well no, number one definitely is. But this is damn close. ENJOY YOUR PARTY. The people we love enough to invite into our homes to feed them and show them a good time will be grateful no matter what. The tiny details you spent a month stressing out about? No one is really expecting them. They came to see YOU. I mean, definitely don’t starve your guests if you promised food. But remember to be a part of the event. Make sure you are dressed and ready an hour before the start time, and have a cocktail (or mocktail). Survey your space, imagine your guests in it. Visualize where you want to be. It shouldn’t be sweating in the kitchen with complicated sauces bubbling over and glass in your foot (been there). Keep your event simple enough so that you can enjoy the company of the people you rarely have together in one space. This is just as much for you as it is for them – and they want to see you having a good time.
Personal note: If you’re going to have a BIG party, make sure you are thoughtful about your guestlist. I would not recommend inviting guests who will have to travel very far, or who you only see once in a blue moon- you may not have the time to spend with them as your attention will be so divided. They might end up feeling ignored, or even angry for having made such a long journey for little-to-no attention from you. Save those guests for one-on-one time, or smaller gatherings where you can really catch up.
Not graceful in the kitchen under duress? Keep the food simple, but special. Like slow roasting a pork belly then making a sandwich bar with all the fixins! Just enough work to make it unique without breaking your back or the bank.
5) Thank your guests.
Some people do the Thank You card thing, and I always appreciated that. I don’t do that myself since they go right in the garbage and I am a bit of a paper-waste nut. But I always send something to thank my guests for coming to see me. I do one mass email to all my guests citing something funny that happened, acknowledging burnt sauce, you know that sort of thing. Or I send personal e-mails to the guests who went out of their way to help, bring something generous or stay late to help tidy up. I don’t think gifts are necessary but if you do, keep it small and meaningful. (Expensive over-the-top gifts should be avoided as it may seem to set an uncomfortable “expected gift budget” between friends.) It is quite often guests pitch in a LOT, and this effort should be acknowledged and a little note goes a long way!
There’s much more I’m sure I missed but I think this is a good start at covering the important stuff. If you have any questions, or ever want to talk to me about your event, I actually love conceptualizing and helping people figure out how to plan ahead. Shoot me an e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org!
Director of Tasting Rooms