The professionals' guide to hosting a dinner party
This is the time of year when we are more likely to find ourselves inviting people over for dinner in our houses, and the prospect can strike terror into the hearts of inexperienced cooks and novice hosts. But it doesn't have to be like that, if you heed the advice of some of the most experienced people in the restaurant business - whose job it is to make people feel at home and make sure that they have a good time.
Working in the business doesn't put restaurant manager Denise McBrien off entertaining at home, whenever she gets the chance. "At work I see how easily things can be done," she says, "which makes the prospect of doing it at home less intimidating. And I am definitely in the right job, because I genuinely love hosting people; the only difference is that at work I get paid for it."
Denise will be a familiar face from restaurants around Dublin (including Pichet, which she founded with chef, Stephen Gibson, and her ex-husband, Nick Munier) and London, and now runs front of house at The Old Spot on Bath Avenue, Dublin.
She says that fuss-free entertaining at home is a doddle when you know how. "The first thing I'd say is to keep your numbers manageable. Up to eight guests, I can manage myself, but if I'm having any more than eight at home, then I hire a chef and a waiter. Although I like going to big parties, I don't like hosting them in my home - it feels like an invasion - so I would never have a really big gang. I prefer dinner around the table.
"I have two trestle tables that I bought from CaterHire that I set up when I am having people over. Most people, including me, don't have room for a table for eight to be in place permanently. I have white table cloths from Penneys and I always put two on, one on top of the other - the table feels more luxurious that way.
"I light scented candles an hour before my guests arrive - French Linen Water from Max Benjamin is my favourite. I use it in the restaurant too. That way if I burn anything - my house is open-plan - they'll disguise the smell. I buy white roses from M&S for the table - they cost €5.50 and last for two weeks; you definitely don't have to spend a fortune on flowers. I have dimmers on my lights and use them, because women in particular like nice light. And I set the table with matching glassware and cutlery and use linen napkins. I think it's important that it looks as if you have made an effort."
When it comes to food, Denise says that she chooses dishes that don't need much attention. "Guests in your home don't expect restaurant-standard food," she says, "but if you are a regular in a restaurant you can always buy eight portions of a starter, main or dessert from the restaurant and the restaurant will give you instructions as to how to heat and serve it. It happens all the time.
"I always wear an apron as I don't want splashes on my clothes - the trick is remembering to take it off when I sit down! The last time I had people over I started with crab risotto, which I made ahead and brought back by adding a little liquid, and then served Domini Kemp's Chicken in a Pot, which is one of my favourite recipes, with peas and hasselback potatoes. The potatoes were a disaster, I left them in the oven too long and they were dried out but it didn't really matter. I made tiramisu for dessert and served it in those giant martini glasses, which lend a bit of wow factor.
"It's important to serve decent wine, and plenty of fizzy water. I've gone off prosecco, but I would offer people a beer or a G&T to start. If you put bottles of San Pellegrino on the table everyone drinks it, but they ignore jugs of tap water. I keep the music understated - I hate that jukebox feel, and I try and tidy up as I go along, or at least put tea-towels over any mess and dirty plates that I've cleared from the table, so people don't have to look at them.
"And while I wouldn't tell people to put their phones away, I will eyeball them if they have them out at the table. It's so rude and it gets in the way of conversation."
Talha Pasha is another restaurant professional who loves to host guests in his own home. Originally from Pakistan, Talha has been in Ireland for 10 years, ever since he arrived to study accountancy at Griffith College. "I soon realised that it was not a good choice for me," he says. "I was much happier when I switched to hospitality management."
Talha is famous for the Talha-tini cocktails he creates at Michael's and says that a cocktail at the start of an evening is a great ice-breaker. After that, it's wine, and he advises hosts to check the ABV on the bottle. "It's much better if the wine is light in alcohol," he says, "so that people don't get too drunk. And you don't have to spend a fortune to get wine that people will enjoy, just ask for advice in your local wine shop."
Talha used to be a chef so he takes cooking in his stride. "I cook a lot of Pakistani and Indian food, but also Irish and French dishes. I love Irish seafood, and everyone knows that butter and potatoes will always be on the table in my house. I tell people who are stressed about having people over not to worry too much about the food - just cook something that you are comfortable with and people will like it, they are just happy to be invited into your home."
Talha says that he never worries about mixing different groups of friends either. "I love to introduce people from different cultures, and people of different ages, to one another," he says. "When I first came to Ireland I was quite lonely and didn't know many people, but my Irish fellow students introduced me to their families, and I got to know their parents and brothers and sisters, and everyone gave me a really warm welcome. That's the reason why Ireland feels like my second home. In the apartment building where I live there are Polish, Irish and Chinese people and we all share dishes and invite each other over to share food when there's a celebration."
A seasonal cocktail recipe from Talha Pasha, restaurant manager at Michael's in Mount Merrion and this year's RAI Dublin Restaurant Manager of the Year. Talha says: "The pear syrup works well too with lemonade and mint leaves for drivers, children or those trying not to waffle at the dinner table."
Shot of Dingle Gin
½ shot of Cointreau
Juice of ½ lime
2 shots of pear syrup (see right)
Dash of prosecco
For the pear and cinnamon syrup:
100ml pear juice
¼ stick of cinnamon
Make the pear and cinnamon syrup in advance. Add the ingredients to a saucepan and boil for 3-4 minutes until fully emulsified. Chill.
Add the gin, Cointreau, lime juice and pear syrup to a cocktail shaker, shake and pour over ice. Add a dash of prosecco to finish.
Talha's Chickpea Canapé
This is a tasty one that can be whipped up at short notice, so keep the ingredients to hand. These go surprisingly well with cheese on crackers - I'm hooked on this with a crumble of Young Buck.
3tbsp vegetable oil
½ red onion, finely diced
1 tin of chickpeas
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp tamarind chutney
Pinch of Achill Island smoked salt
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
3 tbsp natural yoghurt
Crackers, savoury biscuits or mini tartlet cases
Few sprigs of coriander for garnish
Drain the chickpeas, rinse and simmer in a saucepan for 2 minutes. Heat the oil in a small pan, then add the red onion to soften for a minute. Add the chickpeas, cumin, tamarind chutney, smoked salt and garlic, and cook until it is all warmed through and the spices have given off their aroma. Remove from the heat, stir the yoghurt through and pop a teaspoonful onto the crackers or biscuits.
Top ten: John Healy’s key entertaining tips
John Healy is the General Manager at Suesey Street restaurant, on Dublin's Fitzwilliam Place, and star of TV's The Restaurant
1. Clean the house from top to bottom. You can't smell your dog and cat smells but everyone else can. Make sure the bathrooms in particular are spotless, supplied with plenty of hand towels and extra loo paper. Scented candles and low lighting are the order of the day.
2. Drink awareness - consider this a public service announcement! Serve only wine and prosecco, as homemade G&Ts can be lethal. Make sure everything - including the water - is chilled in plenty of time.
3. Do not try a new dish for the first time when you are having people over. Rehearse what you plan to cook beforehand, and try out any new recipe in advance on friends or family. 'Practice makes perfect' is the motto, and timing is very important. Write down a running order for the jobs that need to be done, taking into account how long each task will take.
4. Don't over-think the food - complicated dinners only end up being a disaster. There is nothing wrong with a good roast chicken dinner if you use good-quality chicken or poussin and serve with baby vegetables and gratin dauphinois. It's simple and stylish.
5. Prepare as much as possible in advance - for example, peel and chop vegetables ahead of time. It's a good idea to have a cold starter, especially if you aren't very experienced in the kitchen. Or serve sharing platters of antipasti - think Italian and Mediterranean bits and pieces. Pre-made desserts like trifle are great crowd pleasers - and have the advantage of being served cold.
6. Presentation is important, so serve the vegetables and any side dishes family-style for sharing, and serve each guest their meat or fish on a plate with a little garnish. A piled up plate looks ignorant.
7. A good cheese selection after dinner always goes down well - perhaps serve it with a bottle of good port.
8. The host should be with his or her guests at the party and not stressed out in the kitchen. Planning is key, and hiring a little help for the evening can be well worth it in terms of whether the host enjoys the event. A relaxed host makes for relaxed guests.
9. If you really want to impress, and your kitchen skills are not up to the job, write the cheque and get the caterers in. It's what they do, and you can relax and enjoy the evening yourself.
10. If you are too stressed by the prospect of inviting people into your home, there are plenty of restaurants in the country to which you can bring your guests - they will be only too delighted to help you entertain them.