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 Martha’s or Giada’s. Don’t get cocky, though, because a slew of hosting problems could turn your big night into a big fright. Here’s how to avoid disasters and ensure that your meal is memorable — 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. “People were due in 30 minutes,” he says, “and we had nothing else to serve.” So Hiersteiner picked out the offensive bits and plated the dish. “It tasted pretty good,” he says.
Tip: Follow the K.I.S.S. rule: Keep It Simple, Stupid. “Do preparation up front,” says Susan Lacz, CEO of D.C.’s Ridgewells Catering (ridgewells.com).“Make things that are easy to reheat or don’t require last-minute preparation.”
To celebrate her boyfriend’s birthday, 24-year-old Rolling Stone writer (and current Capitol Hill dweller) Erin Coulehan decided to throw him a surprise party. “I spent all day cooking and baking cupcakes,” she says. “I went all out.” To her shock, her boyfriend’s 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. “It was like a movie when something happens and everything goes silent,” 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. “As soon as you see that someone has trouble walking, ask them if they’d like some water, and explain that you’ll ask them to leave if it gets worse,” says Chico Suarez, head of security at Dupont Circle’s 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 couldn’t translate that label. “As soon as people started to eat it, tears started pouring down their faces,” she remembers. Turns out that what she thought were tomatoes were red hot peppers. “It was inedible, and I was deeply humiliated,” she says.
Tip: Don’t make your guests guinea pigs. “If you’re cooking something, taste it,” says Ridgewells’ Lacz. “Also, do multiple courses. That way, if somebody doesn’t like a course, there’s something else for them.” And whether you’re 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 hadn’t 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 Kershner’s then-3-year-old son, Liam, threw open the door to the patio wearing nothing but a devilish grin. “Naked party!” he screamed, before running around the yard. “My first thought was, ‘Is she going to regret having visited us?’ ” Kershner says. “We tried to put on a good front, but that failed. Then he did it again 10 minutes later.” So much for a classy reunion.
Tip: “The only thing that’s predictable about kids is that they’re unpredictable,” says Barbara Kline, president of White House Nannies (whitehousenannies .com). “And they don’t like to keep their clothes on. Always have someone watching them during dinner parties or risk the consequences.”