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Life Hosting for the holidays: Three experts give their top tips for brunch, cocktails and dinner

Illustrations by Alanna Cavanagh for The Globe and Mail

Brunch made easy

When Gail Simmons, the Canadian Top Chef judge and special-projects director at Food & Wine magazine, invites friends over during the holidays, she keeps things casual – right down to her toes.

What kind of party would you like to have for the holidays this year?

I do a lot of entertaining around the holidays but a leisurely brunch is, to me, the most luxurious way to celebrate. I like to eat brunch in bare feet, really casually with friends or family. I like people to have the morning to themselves so I have guest come over around 11 a.m., which gives you time to do any last-minute things in the morning. The key is being organized the night before.

Do you think in terms of a theme?

When it’s Christmas or Hanukkah I want it to be more festive than my regular brunches. I do three things when people arrive: I give them a drink, I make sure they have a little bite and, depending on who they are, I put them to work.

What jobs do you assign your friends?

I’ll have them chop herbs or grate cheese, wash the fruits and vegetables. I’ll ask someone else to make sure the cheese plate is replenished. My husband will be orchestrating the music, taking jackets, making sure everyone has a drink.

What kind of drinks?

Because it’s the holidays, I would have a little champagne with something extra – I might put a little bit of ginger syrup in it with fresh pomegranate seeds or a drop of pomegranate juice. If it’s very cold outside, you can do mulled wine. I just made a Christmas special with chef Marcus Samuelsson and he taught me how to make grog, which is a Swedish mulled wine. It’s almost like a hot sangria. All those beautiful Christmas spices are mulled into the wine – cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and fruit. That would be a great way to start a meal.

How do you set up your space?

I don’t do major holiday decorations but I would definitely set the table beforehand so it’s organized. I’d do a sit-down meal but family-style. I’d set the table with a beautiful runner and low vases full of seasonal flowers such as amaryllis or little branches with festive berries.

What do you serve?

I always start with fresh cheese and charcuterie – a little prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, local cheese, fresh baguette. And I’ll also put out some fruit – a big bowl of those delicious clementines and maybe some grapes, sliced pears, nuts. For my sweet dish, I like to do a play on bread pudding: a baked French-toast dish that you can cut into portions. It can be done in advance or even the night before. Another great egg dish that can be done in advance and served at room temperature is a big frittata.

What ingredients would you put in it?

I’m really into preserved lemons, kale and shaved Brussels sprouts. I’d sauté and brown the sprouts a bit first, with caramelized onions and lots of fresh herbs – definitely Thai basil. Maybe I’d add a tiny dot of fish sauce. I’d serve the frittata with a little kimchi or some sort of spicy pickle on the side and hot sauce – I’m loving one called Blis that’s aged in bourbon barrels.

Yum. Anything else?

My final touch would be a big salad to cool things down, cut the fat and add some crunch. I’d use the bitter greens that are in season right now: radicchio, escarole, things like that. I’d chop them finely and add some citrus like grapefruit or orange segments. And some fennel. And olives. Maybe some toasted hazelnuts. I’d dress it with a really bright, acidic vinaigrette.

Would you bother with dessert?

Yes, because you want to prolong this brunch! Right now I’m having a moment with a classic French Canadian tarte au sucre. I just had one in Montreal and I said, “Why aren’t we all making these all the time?”

Featured recipe: Caramelized Shallot and Brussels Sprout Frittatas

A glam yet simple soiree

Brittany Wong is the principal event planner at Bash + Fete in Vancouver, so she knows a thing or two about throwing a chic party for large group of people without losing your cool.

What are the trends in holiday entertaining this year?

People are getting dressed up and going for a glamorous look. From a decor standpoint, a lot of metallics are being used. And of course food is important. We had a huge run of sockeye salmon this season, so you could serve that as an alternative to turkey. Infusing pine into the meal is a bit of a trend this season.

What kind of party will you throw?

I’m thinking of a very glam cocktail party for 50 or 60 people, one you can spend Friday night and Saturday getting ready for. I like doing cocktails because it’s just a lot easier to socialize. The expectation is that you would feed your guests enough food to act as a meal replacement.

How much food is that?

The rule of thumb is 10 to 12 pieces per person for canapés. If you want to go on the lighter side and assume people have already had dinner, you can go down to six to eight pieces. Of course, every canapé is different: A slider is heartier and more filling than a tomato-bocconcini skewer.

What else could you serve?

Well, I like about 70 per cent of the food to be passed and 30 per cent to be at food stations. People like to know there is always a place where they can find food. I like a big cheese tray or a meat-carving station. If you have someone carving a brisket, for example, it creates interest and keeps the food looking fresh.

Do you hire help?

Definitely. Staffing is such a key component to enjoying the evening. You need a bartender and two or three staff to assist with getting the food out and collecting glassware. You don’t necessarily have to shell out for a caterer. Get your favourite local grocery store to assist you with platters you can just pick up.

Should a party like this have entertainment?

If people are staying for the evening, a musical focal point is key. Instead of just plugging in your iPod, pick up a holiday playlist from Songza or hire a pianist, a duo or a local choir. How about setting up a selfie station to give your guests something extra and fun to do?

How do you figure out what alcohol you need?

I’d serve red and white wine and three or four different signature cocktails instead of a full bar. This allows you to control your budget and creates more of a theme to the evening. If you’re having 50 people, two to three cases each of red and white should do the trick.

How do you set up your home for all those people?

I have seating around the edges of the room and in the corners. Go ahead and put the cheese plate on the dining room table but push your table up against the wall. Use your kitchen counter as your bar. It might even be worth renting a couple of high-top tables to give your guests somewhere to put their glassware. There’s nothing worse than waking up the next morning and finding glassware in your cabinets and under your couch.

And what about decorating?

I like to create vignettes in corners of the room or in the front entry. Bring your colours in with your tableware.

Do you have a punch bowl with a silver rim or a platter with gold?

You can even spray-paint pine cones in gold and silver. I’m a fan of bringing the outdoors in.

Featured recipe: Spicy Ginger Old Fashioned

A rich twist on traditional dinner

The co-chef and co-owner of Joe Beef in Montreal, David McMillan is known for decadent, unpretentious food – the kind he serves for his own réveillion feast.

What kind of dinner party would you have for the holidays?

I always have friends and family over. We’re generally around 12 people – my family is small so the rest are strays: expats and single guys or friends from work.

When do you have the dinner?

On the 24th at night – the réveillon, as we call it. Traditional québécoise.

How do you set up?

We have one very small Christmas tree. My house has a rustic farmhouse kind of look. There’s a dining room and a big open kitchen. There’s a giant butcher block. I have champagne on ice. I also make a big pitcher of my Master Cleanse, which is a lemonade with cayenne pepper and a drop of maple syrup. It cuts through any grease you’ll be eating. We stand around and people drink and talk and say hello to each other.

What do you have for an appetizer?

I make baked clams. I steam the clams, split them and serve them on the half shell with garlic butter, bread crumbs, a little parmesan. And we always have a foie gras terrine with brioche à tête and and apple jelly. Any apple jelly will do. I’m not Mr. Wine and Food Pairing, but a big, cold-ass bottle of sauterne with terrine au foie gras, brioche à tête and apple jelly is really special.

And what’s for dinner?

There’s a recipe that I love – in the English world, it’s non-traditional – called gigot de sept heures. It’s a lamb leg cooked for seven hours. I cook two of them on a wire rack over a cookie sheet. I spike them with a little bit of garlic and little pieces of truffle. Then I make a paste of salt, olive oil and thyme and I really smother it on. When people come, the smell of thyme, garlic and truffle has permeated the air. It’s super fun to serve because all you need is a big spoon and you can take out huge soft pieces of braised lamb leg.

And what are you drinking at this point?

We drink magnums of Chablis and Burgundy.

What about dessert?

We have a yule log that I get from Patrice Pâtissier [in Montreal].

How late do people stay?

Till midnight, 1 o’clock. Sometimes we put the kids to bed and wake them later.

What’s the wardrobe?

I encourage people to wear Christmas sweaters. Mine has a giant Santa Claus on the front. We open the windows. One of the important things about having a dinner is that you have to be very temperature-sensitive. A lot of hosts make a mistake. The room has to be cool-ish. And the temperature of your wines is tantamount to the success of your dinner. I chill the reds and I make the whites close to frozen. Sometimes I leave all the champagne in the snow outside. Cold white wine and cold champagne are conducive to extraordinary conversation.

Featured recipe: Gigot de sept heures (Seven-Hour Lamb Leg)

These interviews have been condensed and edited.

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