Where were you on Jan. 7, 2012?
I remember the date vividly, because it was the worst dinner party I ever hosted and not because of my guests, who were kind to send me notes afterward thanking me for everything short of the food. They used the trick I employ when chefs whose work I can’t praise ask me how I’m enjoying dinner in their restaurant: So nice to be here. Love the dining room. Great service.
In my house, we call such distractions “shiny baubles,” like the sparkly objects one waves near the face of a crying baby to distract him.
The details of that winter evening are fuzzy (the mind has a wonderful way of tempering traumatic events), but I do recall botching something Italian from Marcella Hazan, making something complicated without rehearsing it first and being grateful that my partner, Ed, who had just completed culinary instruction at L’Academie de Cuisine, prepared the dessert. Baking is Ed’s forte — and the last course is a guest’s parting impression.
Decades ago, I could cook, and I did it a lot — with confidence. In my first tour of duty for The Washington Post, one of my tasks involved testing recipes in what was then a twice-weekly Food section. Alice Waters’s pizza, Sen. Daniel Inouye’s sweet and sour spareribs, Lord Baltimore’s laborious layer cake — you name the dish, I probably made it during that four-year run in the 1980s.
I moved on to ever-better food gigs in Milwaukee, San Francisco and Seattle, then back to Washington. With each new job, I found myself spending less time in my home kitchen and more at restaurant tables. Last year, a dozen into my job as food critic for this newspaper, I figured I cooked fewer than 10 meals. That is not a number I share proudly. Cooking, I realized after my mess of a home-prepared meal last year, is like a second language. If you don’t practice, you get rusty. And in my case, my Italian (French, Chinese, you name it) had lapsed into babble. More significant, bringing people into your home for a meal is one of the most intimate expressions of human communication, and I wasn’t practicing it.
I was determined to change my status, to replace the foil swans and white cartons of unfinished restaurant meals in my refrigerator with Tupperware containing food I had made and shared with friends under my own roof. Moving from a small condo in Logan Circle to a generous house in Crestwood in February put me on the right track. So did a partner who prefers dinner closer to rush hour with a Stella Artois he opens himself than “our next available reservation is at 9 o’clock” and hovering waiters.
People make the mistake of waiting for The Perfect Moment to entertain at home, or thinking they need to replicate the menu from the Inn at Little Washington. Take it from a new homeowner and a freshly enlightened dinner host: No one cares if you haven’t painted your walls or re-covered your sofa. And no one is expecting you to play Patrick O’Connell in the kitchen. Your friends will be grateful simply not to have to cook. They may even leave with a new contact or two in their iPhones.
I was determined to change my status, to replace the foil swans and white cartons of unfinished restaurant meals in my refrigerator with Tupperware containing food I had made and shared with friends under my own roof.
If you’re a chorister who hasn’t sung a serious note in a while, you don’t attempt Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers” for your first audience. For my debut dinner in our new home in March, I invited two close friends and fed them dishes that had not only passed the Food section’s recipe-testing hoops — sweet and sour pickled salmon, fresh green beans with feta and lemon, cherry almond cake courtesy of directions from the Kennedy Center’s Michael Kaiser — but also made their way into the newspaper’s new cookbook.
For my second meal, I reached out to two couples who had hosted Ed and me so many times, I couldn’t in good conscience accept another invitation until I had cooked drunken roast pork and Brussels sprouts with wild fennel seed for them. Dinner Party No. 3 starred herbed leg of lamb from the Wall Street Journal and lemon meringue pots de creme from the New York Times. On the occasion of a visit from my mom, she whipped up a wild rice casserole and a lemon angel pie — two fond memories of my Minnesota youth — and Ed and I contributed beef short ribs and chocolates brought back from a quickie trip to Paris.
I most enjoy serving food with a story, or strong sentiment, behind it. On Memorial Day, I fed friends roast chicken with bread salad, a recipe from my favorite restaurant in San Francisco, Zuni Cafe, and coconut cake from the family files of my predecessor and friend, Phyllis Richman. During my Bay Area career, that succulent chicken, arranged on a bed of greens with macerated currants, toasted pinenuts and croutons splashed with champagne vinegar, was the featured attraction at countless birthdays and dates; as a youthful recipe tester, few dishes made a sweeter impression on me than that moist white cake and its lattice of shaved coconut, brown sugar and melted butter. Such a comfort was that cake, Richman told her readers, it had gone to war with an uncle (and even to Italy with her on assignment).
Notice a theme? Mostly food you wouldn’t find in restaurants. Sense something else? The more you just do it, the easier hosting dinner parties becomes.
If practice doesn’t make perfect, the routine at least makes dinner smoother. You develop a larder from which you can pull inspiration for the next meal. Your timing improves, too. I keep a list of everything I need to make and when dishes need to be cooked or chilled. And I never, ever start cooking without rereading a recipe and having ingredients pre-measured or prepped, what chefs refer to as mise en place. An organized host is a host who doesn’t flinch when a guest shows up early.
Among the lessons I’ve gleaned the hard way: No matter how well you think you can cook, and no matter where you got the recipe (Gourmet, how could you!), do not attempt to make a dish you’ve never made for company. After spending Christmas with my family in Vienna several years ago, I was hell-bent on re-creating the tafelspitz — an extravaganza of boiled beef, creamed spinach, shredded potato cake and apple-horseradish — I encountered seemingly everywhere there, going so far as to hunt down the pine-fragrant Austrian liqueur Zirbenz back home. I think my guests had a jolly time, but honestly, the steps-heavy production is best left to restaurants, and, frankly, for all the preparation, the result was — nicht so gut.
With seven gatherings in our new digs behind us, Ed and I have discovered that a single great idea, one delicious thing, can make a party. No matter what lands on our table, we always start the night off with a cocktail we’re passionate about — Manhattans in winter, margaritas in summer — and serve them with the best drink snack I know: blue cheese straws, pencil-thin crackers that snap, crackle and pop in the mouth. I never tire of e-mailing the recipe to friends the next day.
Of course, no amount of planning can prepare a host for mishaps. Not that I’m pointing a finger at anyone, but if you don’t put the dog in a secure location after your party sits down to eat, he is likely to scarf down the deviled eggs your guests didn’t finish during cocktails. Alas, it will be a guest who reports this.
Also, if you retrieve spare heirloom chairs from the basement that haven’t been fully re-assembled by your co-host since you moved (ahem), you risk the chance of them collapsing under someone’s weight. And so it was, after a recent toast in our home, that, Ed, and then I, found ourselves on opposite ends of the dinner table in splinters of Eames. Thank goodness we weren’t holding our wine glasses, and bless the friends who didn’t post the debacle on Facebook.
Company will forgive you for a lot of things, but running out of wine is not one of them. Stock up, and be hospitable, unlike the dinner a pal and his wife attended, where the host put out a single bottle — for six guests. In my book, that’s Communion.
For our most recent dinner party, in June, the focus was on introducing intriguing characters to one another, and we kept the menu simple and familiar (at least to us): Aperol spritzes and cheese straws on the porch to start, followed by Zuni’s chicken and Mom’s lemon angel pie in the dining room, where place cards flagged not just names but also a juicy detail about each guest. This crowd didn’t require any ice-breakers, but no one stopped talking after it was revealed that Karen had toured with both the Rolling Stones and Madonna (“the Stones are nicer”) and Septime had been attacked at 15 by a baboon. Marc enthralled us with the revelation he had lived in a cave in the Himalayas for three months.
Guests may or may not remember what they ate or drank. They will remember you took the time to make them comfortable in your home. The great essayist M.F.K. Fisher nailed it when she wrote, “There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.” I still spend almost 40 hours a week in dining rooms other than my own, but having rediscovered the joys of cooking — and entertaining — I’m making a priority to do just that at least once a month at Chez Ed & Tom.
Our dining room still isn’t painted, by the way. But we have five broad brushstrokes of colors on the wall that we’re mulling, and we’re asking dinner guests to help us decide which hue to make permanent. (So far, the votes are in favor of Clark + Kensington’s soft green “Briarwood.”)
Tips for the host
1. Don’t serve dinner before dinner. In other words, the food you serve with drinks is ideally something light: really good nuts, mixed olives, something that won’t detract from the main event (or end up going to waste).
2. If you serve cocktails before dinner, make it one-size-fits all and do it in a batch ahead of time if you can. Once guests start arriving, you don’t want to be distracted with jiggers and ice and not giving your company your full attention. Also: Nothing too strong and just one drink before dinner.
3. If time is short, put your focus on one aspect of the meal. Make sure at least one course is something you made yourself. And remember that dessert is your parting impression but that it needn’t be fancy. A super-confident friend recently broke apart bars of fabulous chocolate after dinner and invited guests to help themselves from the wrappers in the center of the table.
4. Ask your guests before your party if there’s anything they can’t eat. I learned that lesson the hard way recently, when a pescatarian (“You are?”) at my table declined the roast chicken I served. Hope she liked the green bean salad and lemon pie?
5. Place cards sound stuffy, but they’re tools to a successful dinner party, particularly when people don’t all know each other. By arranging who sits where, the host stage-manages the buzz. (Hint: Put the stars or the liveliest conversationalists in the center of the mix.) Consider adding a short but intriguing detail about the guest on his or her card, a factoid that table mates on either side can see and use to stimulate conversation.
6. Remember, you are not a restaurant. A simple, well-prepared meal always trumps one of those nights when visitors never see their hosts because the latter are trying to replicate something they once had at a Michelin three-star destination in Paris.
7.If you pour one wine for your guests and another for yourself — I haven’t, but I know hosts who do — someone always finds out. Envy ensues.
Tips for guests
1. Show up on time, no later than 15 or 20 minutes after the hour you were invited. Your lateness may mean the difference between a juicy meatloaf and a dry one. Being late stresses the host and increases the odds of getting on-time arrivals tipsy as they wait for you.
2. One of the best host gifts I ever received was a bouquet of flowers, presented in a pitcher so I didn’t have to hunt for a vase at the same time I was greeting people at the door. Alternatively, consider sending flowers the day before or the day of a dinner party.
3. Unless invited, don’t camp out in the kitchen when the host is putting the finishing touches on a meal. He would probably prefer that you get to know the other guests in another room while he’s taking the temperature of the entree or trying to clean up a mess.
4. Come with a good story or two. And take the time to read the paper before you head out or do some light research on your fellow dining companions. When the host of a New Year’s Eve dinner informed me I was going to be seated next to a U.S. senator whose voting record I didn’t agree with, a little sleuthing determined that my dining companion lived 60 miles from my home town. We ended up bonding over our shared Midwestern roots.
5. Following dinner, write a thank-you note — on paper — and send it the old-fashioned way. The U.S. Postal Service will be grateful, and so will your host, who may have spent hundreds of dollars and a day or more of cooking and cleaning and fussing so you didn’t have to last night.
6. Reciprocate! If you enjoyed your host, invite him or her to your place. And don’t wait until “everything’s perfect,” becauseit never will be.
Tom Sietsema is the Washington Post’s
food critic. To comment on this story, e-mail email@example.com.