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Is a relaxed, simple holiday party possible? Yes, and here's how Add to ...

Originally published on November 29, 2011.

Giving in to the spirit of the season has only truly become possible for chef Lynn Crawford since she opened her own eatery in Toronto’s east end last year.

As the executive chef at several Four Seasons hotels before that, Crawford typically spent the holidays at work, giving the gift of cheer to her patrons.

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But since she launched Ruby Watchco, a family-style boîte, in 2010, Crawford and her staff have closed the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day to make holiday memories of their own. A consummate host, she knows what it takes to strike a balance between elegance and ease, from the menu down to the last atmospheric detail.

Following are her tips for a successful, and decidedly untaxing, holiday feast.

THE GUEST LIST

Good friends and family are the key when it comes to conjuring the right environment in which to spend time this season – a special one for Crawford.

“For me, it’s the time to sit around a table, share a laugh and enjoy a lovely meal,” she says. “The older I get, it becomes more important in my busy life to be able to enjoy those moments with people you love. So leave out the obligatory invitations this year and invite only those guests who consistently bring a feeling of warmth and connection.”

THE SET-UP

Whether your feast is sit-down or buffet, plated or family-style, what matters most when it comes to the set-up is a no-fuss approach. “Simplicity is key,” Crawford says, recognizing that the holidays are a stressful time for many. To make things easier for the host, all guests should be invited to pitch in with the execution of a potluck feast.

“The dishes can be traditional or themed, like ‘Everything from Ontario’ or ‘Zydeco Christmas.’ What matters is that it’s fun,” the chef says, adding that it isn’t essential for guests to be proficient in the kitchen. “If your friend is a bad cook, that’s okay. There’s always spiced nuts and hot chocolate.”

THE VIBE

Over all, make your space – as well as yourself – as relaxed as possible.

“Firstly, be comfortable and confident with what you’re serving. It takes the pressure off,” says Crawford, who warns that a host’s tension can affect the mood of guests. Adding favourite or festive music to the mix also enhances the ambience.

“If you want carols, have carols. But be sure to add some of your personal favourites to the mix to keep it real.”

To enliven the potluck party, Crawford also suggests a food- or cooking-themed gift exchange over after-dinner drinks.

“Nothing too expensive,” she says. “But a good paring knife, microplane or peeler” can be used and enjoyed by all.

THE MENU

When it comes to food, why not channel the styles of the 1970s – the heyday of potluck suppers – to produce a retro extravaganza combining traditional dishes of the era with a few family classics thrown in?

“The host could be responsible for, say, a clementine-and-Pommery-mustard-glazed ham,” Crawford says. “Others could bring buttermilk biscuits or potatoes au gratin or Brussels sprouts with bacon.”

A key ingredient to any evening’s success is a good cocktail list. For Crawford, that includes Bourbon Sours garnished with bourbon-soaked cherries. “That and bubbles,” says the chef, who believes that people don’t treat themselves enough.

“It’s the holidays,” she adds. “And bubbles are a nice way to start the evening off.”

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