Party peace: How to throw the best Christmas bash
How can you host the perfect, stress-free dinner party? And what are the worst mistakes a host can make? Liadan Hynes gets some top tips from the experts
Preparation is the key. Make as much as you can in advance, and make things that make sense for the environment and occasion. Work with a menu that keeps you more at the table than in the kitchen. Good lighting is a must, not too bright, use dimmers. There is no such thing as too many candles. They make us look younger and more glamorous! I like to use place cards not for formality but to balance the energy at the table. Dress up if you are a hostess. A gracious host is unflustered and has a great story to tell. Keep hors d’oeuvres to one bite, don’t have them too big. No one wants to talk or kiss with a mouthful.
Model and co-owner of Kokoro restaurant
Get as much help as you can, such as a washer-upper. More time hosting, less time cooking. Keep the group small and intimate with a flow of light, delicious food all night. Let baby join in the fun with some snacks, with the babysitter close by so guests can enjoy the festivities late into the night. Avoid undercooking food, running out of wine, inviting the wrong guests, soufflés, Beef Wellingtons and profiteroles.
At Lisnavagh House, the dining room is naturally festive with its claret-coloured walls, rich curtains and a large fireplace keeping our guests warm. I think getting a glass into guests’ hands as soon as they arrive is key to a party, be it a cocktail or a mocktail (we make elderflower Bellinis), as this puts people immediately at ease and quenches the thirst. It’s also vitally important for the host and hostess to be in the best form because their smiles and humour are invariably contagious.
For our Supper Clubs, we are big on presentation, making sure the food looks inviting on the plate and that the dining room table is candle-lit, creating the most flattering light.
Supper Clubs run every month at Lisnavagh House. www.lisnavagh.com.
Co-creator, White and Green
Plan well in advance. Know what you are going to cook, then ask your friends to bring a salad or a dessert! Share the workload, then a large dinner party is great fun. My worst mistake was when I was just about to serve Christmas dinner and I went to carve the turkey and it was totally raw inside. My cooker had stopped working. I had to cut the turkey in pieces and microwave it!!
When I’m hostess I take it very seriously. I want everyone to have a great time. I have the worst habit of cleaning up as I go and forgetting to enjoy myself until it’s all done. I have OCD badly, it’s not a good thing. The worst dinner parties are when people don’t eat on time as it gets messy. Music is key and has to suit the guests, candles and lighting are the same. My all-time favourite is table settings, I love doing it, I always do name places on formal nights where couples may not know each other as it adds to a night; new people making friends.
Author and chef
Keep it simple. The worst mistake that people can make is thinking their guests will want a Michelin-style restaurant meal when really they’d probably far rather have roast chicken with mashed potatoes.
My experience has been that less is definitely more. Prepare as much as you can the day before, including setting the table, and spend more time at the table with your guests than in the kitchen. Two vegetables, peas and carrots, together with two potatoes, i.e. roast and mash, are more than enough. Have a cold starter and a cold dessert. Make enquiries and have options for the vegetarians/vegans/pescatarians and try to make a menu that suits all. Allergies should be noted. I was once invited to a lunch where there were only beers and spirits. I like to drink wine and I was not offered the bottle I took along with me as the host recognised the label and decided they would keep it for another day! The food wasn’t great either as believe it or not there are lots of things I cannot eat — particularly spicy food. This was over 30 years ago and I still remember! Disastrous day altogether.
Only cook tried and tested favourites and preferably things that can be prepped in advance. I once served gnocchi made with a different variety of potato than I usually use and ended up serving potato soup, it wasn’t pretty. It’s nice to start with an aperitif. Someone once said the most depressing question to start an evening with is ‘red or white?’ Anything from a good G&T to a pitcher of cocktail will get the evening off to a flying start.
Cook and author
Only do ‘faff’ for one course, so if you’re searing something for a starter or peeling quail’s eggs or whatever, do something easy like a hot pot for main. And really important: always delegate. Potential party guests of mine beware, if you offer to bring something I will always take you up on it. The key with this is to be specific so that you don’t wind up with something that jars with the rest of the meal like tacos and beef bourguignon.
Always have lots of ice and limes ready. I cut my limes into wedges and freeze ahead of time.
Do a playlist on Spotify, so there’s not loads of fiddling with music.
Worst dinner party blunder: I once made a savoury soufflé for starter and a sweet soufflé for dessert. Then I accidentally finished the sweet soufflé with Parmesan cheese. I decided to roll with it and luck was on my side: the guests were too drunk by dessert to notice the unusual addition of Parmesan to berry soufflé and chocolate sauce.
Publisher and broadcaster
Cook in advance so you’re free to dine and chat with guests. Aim to be interested rather than interesting throughout dinner and splash out on one key ingredient. The worst mistake you can make is over-complicating the menu, doing a Keith Floyd and drinking wine as you cook because you have over-complicated and are presenting rare Connemara lamb to a vegetarian couple. A spectacular dinner party fail on one memorable night at my house.
MD Glossybox, UK and Ireland
For me it’s all about the right lighting, especially if you have an eat in kitchen. I have several lamps I use around the kitchen for dinner parties and I light every candle going. I have tall candles on display on the table before we sit down and I move these to different styles of tealights when we sit down so it doesn’t disrupt people’s view. No background music is also my biggest bugbear when having a dinner party.
Co-proprietor of Trocadero
A great dinner party is loads of friends and two not so familiar friends. Create new contacts, have loads of wine, and lots of feedback the next day. Most embarrassing dinner party moment was a vegetarian and I hadn’t cooked for them. Or because of the loads of wine weeks ago I had invited people over, and blanked. I got a takeaway and for dessert I did grilled bananas with brandy and sugar, the best night ever.
My top tip is to keep things simple as it’s all about enjoying good company. When setting the table, I don’t like things too perfect; I like to mix and match table linens and tableware and have fun decorating. I often use different embroidered linen napkins for an eclectic look and a plain natural table cloth makes a perfect backdrop to show them off.
I’ve never had any major disasters or witnessed any, it’s just so lovely and a privilege to be invited for dinner to someone’s home.
SUSAN JANE WHITE
Food author and cook
The secret to a good supper party is not the food. It’s the right mix of personalities.
Start collecting tastefully deranged friends. Agreeable guests are too nice, they’re not overburdened by devilment. Always invite a surly windbag who will drive the energy up an octave. Luckily, I married one, so I usually have him to hand at dinner parties. I don’t know what I would do without him.
Food critic, museum director and Susan Jane’s husband
Memorise some Bob Monkhouse jokes. They can ease the tension when your wife burns the food.
Tropical Popical and The HunReal Issues
All my favourite dinner parties are those you weren’t expecting; you’ve had a few drinks and decide to rustle up a feast. It’s even better if it’s a mish-mash of people you know really well and some that you’ve picked up on the way so everyone is peacocking and in their most sparkling form. Serving dinner too late when everyone is now more concerned with the party element rather than the dinner is the worst mistake. You’ll either end up with really messy guests who don’t touch their plates or dinners being scoffed without even touching taste buds.
CAROLINE FORAN AND JO LINEHAN
The worst mistake is really the host taking too much on and then not enjoying the party themselves. We prefer a more relaxed environment where people pour themselves a drink etc, it’s less pressure on one person. Our top dinner party tip would be to outsource a lot of the work so you’re not up to ninety beforehand. So get your appetisers and dessert and other nibbles taken care of with the likes of Marks & Spencer, and then for your mains I always check out the butcher where they’ve got incredible pre-prepared meat options — just find a good butchers! A one pot dish is a stress saver. Another top tip is paper napkins — chic ones from Sostrene Green. Who needs to be dealing with linen napkins. And always start with a special cocktail to set the tone of the night! We love a gin and tonic with a special garnish such as grapefruit and basil, so simple and looks the part!
Remember, your job is to be a host! That doesn’t mean locking yourself away in the kitchen for half the evening. So, plan a menu that can be substantially, if not entirely, prepared in advance. When it comes to serving, plan for pots and platters to be brought to the table rather than individually plated dishes for each person — it can save you time, and it gives more of a “wow” factor bringing platters to the table. Furthermore, it really feels like a meal truly shared rather than trying to emulate a restaurant experience. This is actually how we serve our evening menu at Brother Hubbard and we really think it feels more special — after all, we are coming together to break bread and share a meal together! The advice above was learned the hard way! I was often far too guilty of locking myself in the kitchen away from my guests (and the fun!) when I first started having people over for dinner. Once, I managed to truly mess up my main course — a light brothy fish curry that had to be cooked and served at the very last minute. I accidentally tipped far too much salt into it just at the very end, the lid having popped off the jar (in my defence). As the salt sank in to the wonderful broth, so did all my hopes and dreams for the evening. All I could do was serve it and say that it truly did taste of the sea. You will find most guests will be polite and very, very forgiving!
My top tip is to consider seating in advance especially if you’ve a group of eight or more guests. As tempting as it might be to introduce all your favourite friends who don’t yet know each other, don’t...it’s a dinner party, not speed dating. I also think it’s nice to have an ice breaker (something other than booze!). When it comes to the cooking, it’s best not to attempt a maiden voyage. It might seem like a good idea to try a new recipe for your guests, but there are few things sadder than realising that the chicken was supposed to have been marinated for two hours... 20 minutes before guests arrive. Always make a playlist so you’re not faffing about with music. And don’t have the music too loud. No one wants to have to shout over music, even if it’s a great Lady Gaga remix. The worst thing I’ve every witnessed at a dinner party? A single friend getting over-zealous on the booze before the canapes even arrived. She was hugging the toilet bowl before the main was served... pace yourself!
Cook and author
At this time of year it’s all about planning in advance. Do nothing you haven’t road tested already. For me, big platters that you can bring to the table work really well, and I always go towards slow-cooked food that can be served out of a pot. Trifles that can be served out of one dish, rather than having to bring lots of separate servings to the table, work well. One of my biggest disasters around this time of year was at my house where we share out the jobs. My job was doing the ham. I completely miscalculated the time, put it in the pot and went out for the day with Sophie and the dog. We ended up having pulled pork, it had completely disintegrated into nothing.
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