Real Entertaining

Dinner for Two, From the Heart

Asian Beef Salad is a make-ahead dish with vegetarian options.
Asian Beef Salad is a make-ahead dish with vegetarian options. (By James M. Thresher For The Washington Post)
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By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 11, 2009; Page F01

Editor's note: Real Entertaining is a new monthly column by chef and former restaurateur David Hagedorn that teaches dinner-party strategies. It replaces his Chef on Call column.

Pundits, if you want to know the exact state of our economy, ask people whose social lives once transpired over $100-per-person restaurant meals.

They're in a severe depression over the prospect of having to entertain at home. The reason? Fear of the unknown.

Many of today's aspiring hosts grew up in families where both parents worked; the domestic know-how that used to be passed down has skipped a generation or two, and they don't know where to start.

Cookbooks and cooking shows don't always offer relief. They perpetuate the myths that entertaining is easy, that anything less than perfect is a failure, that it takes only 30 minutes to prepare delightful meals for company. When reality doesn't live up to the image, insecurity sets in, and fear replaces confidence.

I hate to break it to you, but entertaining is more j-o-b than 1-2-3, and it is not so easy to do it well. But there's good news. It's not so difficult, either, and the reward that comes from having a reputation for social brilliance is incalculable.

It's better to be known as an inspired cook than a perfect one. Polished competence is fine as a goal; if your dishes come out the same way every time, there is probably a missing ingredient: heart.

Valentine's Day presents the perfect opportunity to begin building a solid dinner-party repertoire. There's more to entertaining than just cooking, and a dinner for two is a good way to make that discovery. Starting small and working your way up is a much better strategy than the other way around.

Here's one way to think about it: If you've ever been a successful business manager, you have what it takes to entertain well.

After all, throwing a party is like entering into business. An entrepreneur (host) buys or produces goods (food and drink) the public (guests) wishes to consume, offering them at a reasonable price (free) in return for currency (amusing company) in the hope of generating a profit (goodwill).

The metaphor extends easily.

On Valentine's Day, the host's significant other is the target market. The menu should reflect the current tastes and trends of that market. Shopping is nothing more than stocking inventory to meet demand. The workspace should be outfitted to promote efficiency, with the right tools for the right job. The host should manage time wisely by setting deadlines, multi-tasking, outsourcing and dividing labor. He should be familiar with the product he is offering, which optimally has been tested before being made available to the public.

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