To make the final meal of 2014 – or any dinner party for that matter – truly memorable, you must embrace your inner dictator. Curate the experience. Control the variables. Jared Bland lays down the rules (designed so that you can have fun, too)
‘Can I bring anything?” my friend Meredith asked a few hours before a dinner party at my house last month.
“Just wine,” I said.
“I was thinking of bringing stuff to make cocktails. Would that step on your control-freak toes?” she asked.
“Yes, it would be stepping on my control-freak toes. Just bring wine.”
This may seem curmudgeonly and it may seem ungrateful. But the truth is I didn’t want anyone bringing anything other than wine to our dinner party – I never do. No desserts, no cheeses, no playful charcuterie from that new butcher you just love. To some, those things would be acts of generosity. To me, they’re acts of destruction.
A dinner party is a performance, not an improvisation, and certainly not some sort of co-operative effort. (For the purposes of eating well, I do not include “potlucks” under my definitions of either “dinner” or “party.”) They are at their best when the person or people hosting have a vision and a plan, and when as little as possible is done to dilute that vision or change that plan. So, as we set out to toast the last night of 2014, embrace your inner dictator. Take back your table. And follow these simple rules to produce the perfect – and perfectly controlled – evening.
Most people think they have good taste in music, but most people are wrong. You want to set a vibe, not host an ABBA or Run the Jewels sing-along. The easiest thing to do is keep it simple, and play something that sets a relaxed, warm mood, but does not distract in any way from conversation, which is what you’re nurturing above all else. I favour jazz from the late fifties or early sixties – Thelonious Monk could work, or Horace Silver, but Miles Davis is probably your best bet. If you’re an Rdio subscriber, you can stream the complete mono recordings of his early records for Columbia, which embody mellowness itself perfectly. If not, toss on Sketches of Spain, Porgy and Bess or Miles Ahead. The music is some of the greatest art ever made, but won’t get in the way of your guests.
Drinks (part one)
Make a pitcher of something before guests arrive. I like gin punches, as they’re light and refreshing and can be made a few hours ahead of time. I’m also fond of making margaritas in advance, but unless you know what traumatizing tequila incidents lurk in your guests’ past, they can be risky. If you chance it, use the Tommy’s Margarita recipe from Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco; it scales easily and is perfect: 2 ounces 100-per-cent agave tequila, 1 ounce fresh lime juice, 1/2 ounce agave syrup (I prefer the lighter-coloured versions for this recipe), shaken over ice, then strained and served. If you’re salting the rim of your glasses, only salt half of it so people can take as much salt as they want. Plan to sit around and drink for at least an hour before dinner proper is served.
2. Drinks (part two)
Have more wine than you could conceivably need, and don’t count on guests to bring what you’ll serve. Buy several bottles of the same wines, so people don’t have to worry about which red or which white is in their glass.
Conventional wisdom says you should cook something that you prepare in advance, to spend more time with guests. Try tweaking that formula a bit – cook something that you can do 75 or 80 per cent of in advance, but which will require you to pop into the kitchen for a good 20 or 30 minutes before dinner is served. (I’m fond of the lip-smacking chicken and cardamom rice recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi’s book Jerusalem.) This removes you from the equation at the crucial moment in the evening, just as people are loosening up. By stepping away, an independent chemistry will form among your guests. They’ll form new relationships, and you won’t be relied on to make connections and generate conversation for the rest of the evening. Plus, they can gossip about you while you’re out of the room.
The eternal dinner-party dilemma: family style or preplated. Do both. By plating your main item for your guests you get to control presentation, making sure that everyone’s got as much as they need and that it looks beautiful. But by offering sides family-style, your guests will have the pleasure of passing dishes around, holding them while their neighbours serve themselves, plucking one last roast carrot from the serving bowl as dinner draws down. It creates the illusion of easygoing community while still allowing you to control the most important parts.
If your house allows, always establish a second location. Greet people, welcome them into your kitchen, give them their drinks and then kick them out – into the living room, the family room, the den, whatever. That is where you’ll relax and your group will click. Serve some cheese or pickled vegetables or baba ghanoush, serve whatever you want, as long as you’re serving it in a room that is different from the kitchen or dining room in which you’ll eat. This allows you space to finish cooking apart from the group, and allows you to summon the group to the beautifully set and lit table you’ll have pulled together while they drink and chat. And, best of all, it gives you somewhere to go after you’ve eaten. Some people love to sit around the table, chatting endlessly. But more often than not, doing so makes people volunteer to do dishes, which should never happen at any civilized gathering. Move to the second location, and your guests will want to relax, not clean.
Keep it simple. Purchase it if you can. Be honest with yourself: If you’re doing this right, you’ll have spent much of the day cooking a bunch of amazing food that your dinner companions will eat a lot of. Even if you love baking, make your life easier and buy some good chocolate instead.
6. Follow through
Everyone should write thank-you notes (or e-mails, or texts, etc.), of course. But sometimes people get busy. Sometimes people are rude. Do your guests a favour by reaching out to thank them before they get the chance to thank you. A quick text after you’re done the dishes will do the trick. You’ll seem an especially magnanimous host to those who were planning to write you, and you’ll save those who would have forgotten from the indignity of failing to acknowledge your gracious hosting – even your most uncouth friend will thank you after you’ve thanked them.