I think I was nine when I threw my first dinner party. I'd been bought a wok for Christmas. Woks and Agas aren't the best mix, so my Dad, got me a huge gas cylinder with a burner attached to it, so I could cook to my hearts content with high heat. I made a sweet & sour chicken, from a Ken Hom book, and rice fried with eggs, scallions and mushrooms. I also made a great big mess.
But from that moment, I was hooked on having dinner parties. I cooked for family and friends, then when I started working in restaurants when I was 14, I began sous chefing, and cooking for strangers. A whole other world. Between law school and starting work at the BBC, I travelled around the USA, Europe, England and Ireland working as a cook for families, ski lodges, private houses, and corporate events. Since then I have worked for award winning chefs, endless television foodie programmes, various outdoor catering companies, and I have produced food at some of Northern Ireland's biggest events, such as the United States of America, Northern Ireland Investment Conference, where I oversaw all the food that was served to the delegates throughout a four day conference.
I have learnt a few things about cooking for other people during this time, I made plenty of mistakes - such as sending a pavlova flying out the window on its silicon baking sheet - Eton Mess, anyone? And, I had lots of triumphs. A three course, dinner party for 20 in a tiny flat, with a two ring hob, no oven and a fridge in the middle of winter - yep, I did it and people still talk about its success today.
Today, I only take on a couple of dinners a year. At Christmas I cooked at 40 Birthday Party - we had a cider, cinnamon and honey baked ham, with carmelised walnut and cranberry salad, carrot and parsnip mash, and a cheeseboard, plus the obligatory cocktails, and nibbles. This Friday night I am cooking for six ladies and I wanted to share my key dinner party principles with you, which happily can be sealed with a KISS.
KEEP IT SIMPLE STUPID
The dinners cooked at home that always go wrong, are the elaborate, complicated, time consuming, tricky and tiring ones. If you are throwing a dinner party, most of all you want to enjoy it, and the best way to enjoy it is to be keep it simple.
I have been to elaborate dinner parties, where the hosts are just trying to show off, and the whole event is as stressful and repressed as an enema. It is far better to serve an omelette, well made from good local produce, with a light salad, than to attempt a very cheffy recipe, you have never cooked before, that uses endless ingredients, places huge demands on your time, and has some complicated techniques to master, that if they go wrong, will spoil the entire dish. You want to enjoy your evening, not panic, stress and end up curled up on the kitchen floor in a puddle of tears.
KEEP IT SIMPLE STUPID
How do you keep it simple - CHECKLISTS and PLANNING and ORGANISATION. Put the work in before the dinner and on the night itself, everything will flow smoothly and easily.
Here are my Top Five Tips for keeping it simple
- Without doubt the best food you can serve your guests, is food you enjoy making, and food, that makes you smile. If you don't like liver, don't serve it just because it is in vogue. Serve food you like to eat. Think about dishes that can be served family style, with clever presentation, rather than dishes with lots of elements, like a roast, which to be brilliant need specific timings. Think about dishes you can prepare in advance, that don't need you chained to the kitchen stove, while your guests are laughing in the next room, and your missing out on all the fun.
- If you know you are throwing a dinner party a week in advance, decide the menu a week in advance, decide whether you are going to serve a starter, main, dessert, or just starters and puddings, or just a main, or are you just doing nibbles. Write down every dish you are planning to cook, see if the menu balances, does it have a mix of sweet and savoury, protein, starch, grains, salads, veggies, fats? Do the puddings work, with the other courses? Don't have a risotto and then a rice pudding for example. Think about where in your home you are going to serve the dinner party - do you need any utensils, or decorations, plan these now, flowers, vases, table placement
- Write out the ingredients you need for each dish you are making - do youhave them in your pantry, do you need to buy them. Schedule time to do your dinner party shop, put it into your diary.
- Set the table the night before, always, always, always get the table ready before you start cooking, if you can - I know its not always possible if you are eating in the kitchen, if this is the case, set out the crockery, cutlery, glasses, you are going to use on a tray. What table decorations are you going to use, get these ready
- Write a list of everything you need to cook, work out which order you need to cook it in, if possible make your pudding first, prepare all your ingredients in advance, and work to your checklist. Be realistic about timescales, if you think you can do something in 5 minutes, give yourself 10, it is always better to be ready a head of time, than welcoming guests with a sweaty red face. Make sure in your timing plan, you include an hour to an hour and half, of personal getting ready time, before your guests arrived, so you are cool, calm and ready to enjoy the evening when they get there.
Tomorrow I will be sharing my menu with you for Friday night, and give you a sample of one of my kitchen checklists.
How do you prepare for your dinner party - what is your favourite tip, please share it with me by email or in the comments.
That's it for now ...
Salt & Sparkle = Life Remarkable