The Good Host: Grace Under Fire

by Jennifer Iannolo

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Note: This article is a companion to our Gilded Fork: Entertaining at Home cookbook. With 13 dinner party menus, and the tips you’ll find in this and our other entertaining articles, we’ve done a lot of the work for you. Sally forth!

There is a certain art to being a good host, and it is one that is cultivated after what is likely trial-by-fire. You have learned that even the largest catastrophes can be met with a sense of humor, flexibility, and a little creative flair.

But how do you get to that happy place? The answer is not to be found in the bottom of a martini glass (ok, not always). Instead, it is to be found in planning well, being able to think on your feet, and putting the comfort of your guests at the top of the priority list. Even if your recipes turn out quite differently from what you had planned, your guests will remember how delightful you were as a gracious host.

Remember: Elegant does not have to mean complicated. There is beauty inherent in doing things simply, but doing them well, and it doesn’t require lots of frill and fuss. To use a cooking analogy, if you create an ornate dish with mediocre ingredients, the results will still be, well, mediocre. A simpler dish with top-quality ingredients, however, will stay in the memories of your guests long after the plates have been cleared.

That is the entire premise of our Mise en Place section, where you can find elegant menus that are not overly fussy, but that evoke beautiful flavors and use the art of food styling to elevate your presentation. (In fact, that section was the predecessor to our cookbook, which has more meat to it.) Such little touches turn an ordinary dinner party into a memorable occasion, and when combined with ambiance and good company, you can’t go wrong.

What will keep you most calm during all of this, of course, is good planning, which is why we have created a list of tips that we use to plan, as well as some templates for your organization. (Yes, we really, really want you to use them.)

If you wish to become better versed in the rules of dining etiquette, we highly recommend the grande dame of such endeavors, Emily Post. Her Advice for Every Dining Occasion is invaluable for understanding what fork to use for which course, and how to handle such dilemmas as inebriated guests, etc. It is somewhat hard to find now, but if you can get your hands on a copy, save it forever.

Guest Lists

Clearly, this is a critical part of being a good host, as your guests can make or break an event. Does the crowd consist of a group of fun-loving friends, or is it perhaps a small group of serious colleagues from the office?

When we create a guest list for our own parties, we try to ensure it includes at least several people with wonderful personalities who can liven up the room, as well as assist in making sure no one is left sitting by him/herself.

Obviously there are times when you will not have much choice in selecting the attending crowd, as it may be a party specifically for colleagues or a certain social group. In said case, prepare for the Party Hound, the Wallflower, the Drama Queen, and the rest. If you know in advance how to handle these colorful personalities, you will be less stressed when confronted with their expected behavior.

It is best to give as much advance notice as possible, understanding that most people have schedules as full as yours. Your invitations should be in hand at least two weeks before the party to give people time to respond, but if this isn’t possible, don’t panic. Thankfully there is now the possibility of e-mailed invitations through sites like www.evite.com, so there is no worry about delays from sluggish postal systems. However, for guests who haven’t quite gotten the hang of the electronic age, or for those with a true sense of aesthetic appreciation, there is nothing quite like a handwritten invitation. We like Kate’s Paperie and Papyrus for unusual, luxurious invitations.

We always request an RSVP for our events with at least four days of advance notice, whether for a cocktail party or sit-down dinner, as there is really no other way to finalize how much food to prepare. You can always count on a few people to just show up, as well as others to be no-shows; this is inevitable, but if you are well-prepared, these “surprises” should not put a damper on the affair. If it makes you more comfortable, request a confirmation a full week in advance.

In the case of a sit-down, plated dinner party, it is absolutely essential that guests RSVP, as well as show up on time. The worst possible thing a guest can do is interrupt the flow of a plated meal.

The best way to avoid this scenario is to state clearly on the invitation:

Champagne and hors d’oeuvres from 7:30 to 7:55 PM. First course served promptly at 8:00.

Formal, yes, but you’ll be thankful. And if a guest does arrive late, seat him and have him begin with whatever course you are serving — it is not your obligation to go back and prepare anything he has missed.

Our Favorite Mantras

As we also stated in our Survival Guide, there are a few mantras we use when putting on our aprons to prepare a feast for guests. We suggest memorizing them.

• Remember to take deep breaths; freaking out never helped any situation, no matter what the
disaster.

• You are not attempting to reinvent the wheel. You are throwing a party.

• Think on your feet. There is always a solution, so get as creative as you need to. No one else
needs to know — they only see the final result.

• If you absolutely run out of time, or cannot find an ingredient, we will not send you to culinary
purgatory for purchasing pre-made items. Do try, however, to keep such items to pastries,
crudités, and more complicated dishes like terrines and pâtés.

• Do not pickle yourself with cocktails before attempting to cook. Not only will your palate be
deadened, but flames, knives, and alcohol are never a good mix. Trust us on that one.

• Repeat after us: “A little Type-A goes a long way.”

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