We all know that hosting a dinner party can be somewhat stressful, so here are a few basic tips and tricks to ensure smooth sailing whenever you decide to invite friends, family, or in-laws.
A friend of mine recently consulted me ahead of throwing his first-ever dinner party. Knowing that I cook for friends and family on a regular basis, he asked my opinion on a series of things that he had planned for the night, which all made me realise that he was pretty much doomed from the get-go. And that is not to say that he is a terrible home cook, only that his ambitions for the evening completely failed to match his level of experience.
In light of the conversation that later unfolded, I thought it might be useful to summarise the advice that I gave him, as it can surely come in handy for some other home cooks out there.
Knowing your guests
Do be realistic about the number of guests that you are able to cook for in your own kitchen. Consider the equipment at your disposal, the number of stove tops that you can use simultaneously, and the number of trays that fit in your oven. Three people in total is still very manageable, but as of three guests, you generally have to start adjusting the rates of your recipes, which may not always be as straightforward as you think.
Don't underestimate how much people can eat and how difficult it is to provide substantial portions of different components. This is an area where I clearly say, don't wing it! People who accept your invitation expect to be fed, so you should respect them and be able to ensure that nobody has to leave your place with an empty stomach due to miscalculations in planning.
Also, do think about the relationship you have with your potential guests. Friends are generally forgiving and leave you more relaxed than, let's say, your in-laws. So, adjust your plans to whoever you might be trying to impress and remember that you can dedicate more attention to the conversation if you have fewer things to do in the kitchen.
So, do make the smart choice and keep the complicated recipes for people that you know well. After all, we all know individuals where it is more important to weigh your words than your ingredients.
Preparing the food
The most important advice, almost rule I would say, is don't ever cook a dish that you have never tried before. You might be fine with a little last-minute experimentation and improvisation in your cooking, but that is not really what your guests deserve, is it now?
Do remember that people rightfully expect to be fed, so aside from knowing your quantities, it is crucially important to also know how to execute your recipes. Practice makes perfect, the more often you prepare a dish, the better you will be at understanding the individual components, how they might be replaced or altered, and how to deal with potential issues when and where they arise.
Also, try to be aware of your limitations in terms of courses and do think about including your guests in the planning of the evening. Most guests are more than happy to share parts of the responsibilities, such as providing a desert, a selection of drinks, or simply lending a helping hand during the 'mise en place'.
Managing the atmosphere
Much of the atmosphere during a dinner party depends on how you phrase your invitation, as this generally sets the expectations for the evening. So, do consider that you can simply call it a 'pasta night' and let people know exactly that it will be a straightforward meal. 'Roast dinner', and everyone knows there will be a piping-hot oven dish. 'Tapas evening', and you can basically serve up any snacks and bite-sized pieces without anyone complaining.
Don't forget that music can be both a conversation starter and a disturbing element during a dinner party. Do make sure to have a few alternatives at your disposal and know when to discretely turn the volume up or down. This is another area where you can include your guest, so do offer the DJ responsibilities to them while you are in the kitchen making sure that everything is cooked to perfection.