How to party like Leo (popcorn machine and all)
Guests at the Taoiseach's 40th birthday bash were briefed by WhatsApp and watched a movie on arrival. Is he setting new trends, asks Regina Lavelle
There's nobody who understands the power of a party more than a politician. And while Enda might get the kudos for rebuilding Fine Gael, it is Leo Varadkar (and partner Dr Matt Barrett) who take the rosette for most artfully conceived birthday.
Modern without being pretentious, acceptably boozy but not boorish and clubbable without resembling an Ard Fheis, his Saturday shindig at Medley of Fleet Street to celebrate his 40th set a benchmark for how to do parties. It had a good number of guests at 150, a screening of Strictly Ballroom, supper bowls instead of black tie, guests were kept briefed by WhatsApp and the location was kept secret until the last minute, while he deftly sidestepped the delicate politics of the guest list. All of these combined to generating a sense of occasion. Here's the modern guide to being the best chef de party.
Reshuffle the agenda
Previously, there were only three elements required for a party: alcohol, music and food. However Leo's began with a movie screening, which, as Andrew Rudd of Medley says, changed the "dynamic". "It worked very well, we had a drinks reception followed by canapes and the movie, with theatre-style seating, speakers and a popcorn machine. We had never done a movie before - it was Matt's idea."
Rudd says that such elements are increasingly a feature of smart parties. "We've had a casino night, we've had a grand piano in, we've also had a magician who was amazing. I don't think people are as focused on getting drunk anymore."
Joanne Byrne of Presence Communications says "adding another element is being a thoughtful host, and catering for everybody". "Dry January has become part of the social calendar for a lot of people."
Manage the schedule
Starting parties early usually means one thing: trouble by midnight. The key, experts believe, is negotiating a balance between free and cash bars.
"We do two welcome drinks per person - that's red or white wine, bottled beer, or Prosecco. "That's what we had on Saturday," says Rudd. "Then you might do a cocktail. On Saturday, we had a Tanqueray, which is our pouring gin, with a winter berry infusion, and a Tullamore Dew Old-Fashioned. That kind of thing works well, where you have a complimentary reception and then a cash bar." Rudd says he discourages clients from free bars. "I would discourage parties from having a free bar, (a) because it's irresponsible for me to encourage people to drink and drink to excess, and (b) if I'm relying on a cash bar to increase the revenues."
All the experts advise communicating the bar protocol early. "If you're doing a free bar, it's always tricky establishing a cut-off time." says Valerie Roe, PR and the host of Lillie's Bordello. Joanne Byrne says there are ways of defusing a potentially awkward situation. "You can have a cash bar with the prices set to the day the person was born, or having one assigned drink free all night."
Cater to the centre ground
"People are far more discerning now, our palates are more sophisticated," says Rudd. "The first discussion will be the food, before the dynamic of the party and the timings."
The menu at the weekend was, says Rudd:
- Lemon and rosemary chicken skewers with yogurt ranch dressing
- Crispy mixed vegetable and cheese pakora with a basil pesto
- Black pudding, apple and Serrano ham bites
- Grilled halloumi cheese with an apricot compote
- Supper bowls
- Braised jullienne of beef chasseur with forest mushrooms and a tarragon brandy cream sauce
- Sweet potato rendang curry with coriander and bean sprouts
- Red coconut curry with grilled breast of chicken
- Lemon drizzle cake
Rudd says that parties are now staggering food throughout the day or evening. "We have a wedding coming up in June which is a day-long cocktail party, with extended canapes, an oyster bar and Guinness. There will be international food stations. There will be music but it will be a theatre of food, and that's what people want."
Control the message (group)
Some people might think whipping guests by WhatsApp is a tad excessive, but we are "dreadful" at RSVPing. WhatsApp, email and message are the tools employed to shepherd the ever-errant party-going public. "Irish people are dreadful when it comes to RSVPing," says Roe. "If I want a response on who is coming to a party, I would WhatsApp individuals, rather than by group."
The experts agree. "As a nation, we do not RSVP. We don't believe in save the date. It's alien to our culture, to how we socialise - you can have 30 people saying they're coming and 300 show up," says Byrne. "WhatsApp is the natural progression to hard copy invitations and evites, especially for groups. But I try to limit the number of groups I'm in because the pings drive me crazy."
Create an atmosphere and get the right mix
There is no formula for the perfect number, rather it is an alchemy of the right kind of people in sufficient numbers to fill a given space. Rudd recounts a party in which the client was left devastated when only 30 of the guest list of 140 arrived. "It was mortifying for the client," he says.
Valerie Roe says that, for her, location, lighting and music are crucial for a good event. "A nice location, a nice mix of people and good lighting, subtly done, are all crucial.If the music is too low, people are whispering which means no atmosphere."
Delegate the politics
It was Matt who was charged with the guest list, which has, according to reports, resulted in some bruised egos in FG HQ. But Joanne Byrne believes that this was skilful planning, as it's beneficial if not everyone is in the same industry.
"I imagine if you have too many politicians, the conversation just becomes Brexit. A party needs a mix. The really famous hostesses have all put huge thought into that mix and even who sits where."
Roe agrees and says sometimes planning the guest list "isn't personal. You might have 100 people you can invite so you can't ask everyone".
Leo's party location was only announced at the last minute, lest it be leaked. This, the planners agree, can only work if your guests do not have other commitments.
However, Joanne Byrne says withholding such a crucial piece of information isn't always practical. "Mostly, if you want people to attend a party, you have to make it as easy as possible.
"You have to remember that people have commitments. It's different for him, obviously, and completely understandable to hold one or two facts back.
"But for most parties, that just wouldn't work."
So it seems, before one tries to pull a Leo with your next party, perhaps better to poll your popularity rating first…