Your table is set, the house is spotless, and the ideal playlist is programmed on your iPod (a little Civil Wars, a little Chuck Brown, some Mozart for the dessert course). You feel like your dinner party might rival a bash at Marthaâs or Giadaâs. Donât get cocky, though, because a slew of hosting problems could turn your big night into a big fright. Hereâs how to avoid disasters and ensure that your meal is memorable â in a good way.
Great Ball of Fire
A few years ago, foodie Sam Hiersteiner was hoping to wow guests with a swank dinner at his Shaw house. The strategic communications vice president, 32, settled on preparing coq au vin, which involved a finishing touch of brandy. When Hiersteiner touched a match to the centerpiece entree to burn off the alcohol, a massive fireball shot into the hood above the stove. Melting metal and flaming fibers rained down into the pot, while the house filled with smoke. âPeople were due in 30 minutes,â he says, âand we had nothing else to serve.â So Hiersteiner picked out the offensive bits and plated the dish. âIt tasted pretty good,â he says.
Tip: Follow the K.I.S.S. rule: Keep It Simple, Stupid. âDo preparation up front,â says Susan Lacz, CEO of D.C.âs Ridgewells Catering (ridgewells.com).âMake things that are easy to reheat or donât require last-minute preparation.â
To celebrate her boyfriendâs birthday, 24-year-old Rolling Stone writer (and current Capitol Hill dweller) Erin Coulehan decided to throw him a surprise party. âI spent all day cooking and baking cupcakes,â she says. âI went all out.â To her shock, her boyfriendâs ex decided to crash the bash. The former flame was clearly tipsy, but she made a beeline for the prosecco anyway and quickly knocked back several glasses. Then, what seemed like a scene from a Judd Apatow flick happened: The interloper stumbled into the cupcakes. âIt was like a movie when something happens and everything goes silent,â Coulehan says. Pastries scattered all over the floor; one even stuck to the wall. Though the cupcake killer quickly showed herself the door, both the dessert and the festive atmosphere were ruined.
Tip: Intervene before things escalate. âAs soon as you see that someone has trouble walking, ask them if theyâd like some water, and explain that youâll ask them to leave if it gets worse,â says Chico Suarez, head of security at Dupont Circleâs Kabin lounge.
While doing research at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria in the late 1960s, Katherine Marshall decided to throw a dinner party for a few colleagues. While ingredient-shopping, the now-66-year-old visiting professor at Georgetown University bought what she thought was a can of tomato paste for her chicken stew. Too bad she couldnât translate that label. âAs soon as people started to eat it, tears started pouring down their faces,â she remembers. Turns out that what she thought were tomatoes were red hot peppers. âIt was inedible, and I was deeply humiliated,â she says.
Tip: Donât make your guests guinea pigs. âIf youâre cooking something, taste it,â says Ridgewellsâ Lacz. âAlso, do multiple courses. That way, if somebody doesnât like a course, thereâs something else for them.â And whether youâre in Africa or just shopping at the Ethiopian market, ask what an exotic ingredient is before putting it in your cart.
When Michelle Kershner invited a dear friend she hadnât seen in ages over for lunch, she wanted everything to be food-magazine perfect at her Frederick, Md., home. So the marketing and communication manager, 37, served a gourmet luncheon (summer-y salad, chilled wine) on her sunny patio. All was going well until Kershnerâs then-3-year-old son, Liam, threw open the door to the patio wearing nothing but a devilish grin. âNaked party!â he screamed, before running around the yard. âMy first thought was, âIs she going to regret having visited us?âââ Kershner says. âWe tried to put on a good front, but that failed. Then he did it again 10 minutes later.â So much for a classy reunion.
Tip: âThe only thing thatâs predictable about kids is that theyâre unpredictable,â says Barbara Kline, president of White House Nannies (whitehousenannies .com). âAnd they donât like to keep their clothes on. Always have someone watching them during dinner parties or risk the consequences.â