For the past three years I’ve been hosting dinner parties every week, as part of my Toronto Star column, Fed. Whatever I’ve learned in that time is distilled into my new book, How to Host a Dinner Party.
The idea that a dinner party is about people, not food, is less of a tip and more of the guiding principle of my life. So with that in mind — and if you feel that cooking for your friends should be a competition, there is a whole television network devoted to you — here are my top 5 tips for hosting dinner.
1. Be ready when guests arrive.
The worst thing you can do when your guests show up is to still be cooking, cleaning or dressing, instead of getting drinks into your their hands. It can seem uptight that I put in so much work in advance of a dinner party. But that’s so when the doorbell rings, I’m not working. I’m spending time with my friends. Imagine if your guests showed up half-dressed and then asked to use your shower.
2. Don’t serve food you’ve never cooked before.
Too many people are tripped up by their lofty, celebrity chef inspired dishes, and the ensuing disappointment. Cook what you know. It’s just like writing. The dishes that we truly understand, like the stories that really happened to us, are going to connect with people, more than the complex ambitions of glossy, overproduced chef food. Which would you rather have, bison prepared three separate — sous vide, smoked, tartare — ways that didn’t turn out right or a properly roasted chicken with buttery potatoes?
3. Stay cool
Being calm and confident means everything. Despite what you may have heard about my punctuality chart on page 83, the most important piece of information on it is to not be upset at guests who arrive 30 minutes late without calling or texting. I mean, you can be upset but just don’t show it. Bringing out our hostility, whether it’s directed at late friends or corked wine, sours the evening. Confidence is charming. And it’s a confident person who can brush off life’s little indignities.
4. Serve water
Start the evening with water bottles and glasses already on the table. And keep it there, like the wine. We get wrapped up in the service of wine or cocktails. But a guest should never have to wander to the kitchen to get water. If you wait until midway through the meal to start pouring water, your guests will take it as a signal that they’re too drunk.
5. End on a high note.
Everything ends. And the pursuit of a good experience, past its peak, is what ruins most evenings. The average dinner, if people are having a good time, goes about four to five hours. I’ve had guests stay until 2 a.m., chatting or playing video games, but only because I wanted them to stay. If I’d wanted them out earlier, I’d have said the magic words. “I’m having fun. But it’s time to call it a night.”
About the book: This book began as notes for a class on dinner parties, for which I’d outlined 37 steps to hosting dinner. I think the finished book, with its lovely design by Alysia Shewchuck and acceptable drawings by Steve Murray, is more cogent. And I hope it gives people the confidence and inspiration to host more often. In the meantime, these five tips should get you started.
Corey Mintz is best known from the dinner parties he hosts in his home for his popular Toronto Star column, “Fed.” Before that he was a restaurant critic and before that he worked for a living, as a cook. In the past two years, he has hosted 150 dinner parties. He began without napkins or stemware, serving wine out of Nutella jars. But after hosting politicians, artists, academics, monkeys, librarians, chefs, sommeliers, cops, lawyers, psychologists, a spy, a forager, a rabbi, a gambler, a drug addict, and a mayor, he’s become a pro. His first book, How To Host A Dinner Party, was published in May 2013 by House of Anansi Press and features recipes, anecdotes, expert analysis, and an endless bounty of how-to tips. It is the essential guide to perfecting the art of welcoming people into your home. Check out Corey’s blog Porkosity and follow him on Twitter.
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