Nothing says togetherness like a dinner party. The immaculate table, food cooking all day in the kitchen, and family and friends gathered around the table enjoying food and time together. But how can you create a dinner party that's comparable to that of Downton Abbey? Create the experience and food that your guests will remember for years into the future? I'd be happy to help out!
Dinner parties are a great way to try out new cooking and spend time with those you love. Food truly is the best way to bond with those around you, and so the dinner party is a perfect activity for the post-COVID-19 world—a world where we haven't seen one another for some time.
Previously tailored for the wealthy upper class to elevate their social status and show off their grand estates, the dinner party can now be for everyone to put on. Not a cheap task if you do it yourself, but most defiantly worth it. The holiday season is likely when you'll put on a party or go to one, but they can truly be done at any point in the year.
With our background in food, our guide will primarily be focused on food and that of a more formal nature. So, let's jump right in so you can plan your party!
Formality & Guests
When planning out a dinner party, you must first look into what level of formality you're going for. Are you thinking of a white table cloth dinner or more of an informal family-style dinner? When opting for a formal dinner party, you must be very organized in every detail and aspect of your dinner. From the food and drink to the décor, everything must be thought out.
Your guest list must be carefully planned out as well. If you want to cook more complicated dishes, I recommend a 4-6 people party if you are the only one cooking. If you want a larger party, you'll likely need someone else helping you out, or you'll need to simplify your menu. I'd keep your guest list at no more than 12 people unless someone is helping you in the kitchen.
It's also important to keep who you're inviting in the back of your head. Ensure your guests have varied interests but something in common to talk about. A party with only a couple of people talking can hurt the atmosphere of your party.
A timeline doesn't just include when to start cooking and when to serve the food. It also consists of the planning of the party and the time of year. I find winter to be the perfect time of year for a party. If you lack fridge and freezer space, you can always put items in the snowbank if you live in colder temperatures. But there is also a matter of planning time. I take Christmas very seriously, perhaps a little too seriously, so I took a full 365 days to plan my dinner party of six people to a T. No, really... the day after one Christmas, I was getting ready for the next one. Every dish was my creation; every flavor had to add to the symphony of flavors with the coming courses and drink.
A dinner party starts at the plan. You must give yourself plenty of time to plan, especially if you're planning a formal party.
After you've planned out how many people you'll have, a theme (French food, American food, etc.), and the formality of the dinner, it's time to put together a timeline.
Start by finding the day and time your guests will arrive, then look at how much time you will have to cook. Always give yourself some cushion; you don't want to franticly be putting everything together at the last minute. Write down a timeline and add an hour of catch-up time.
When you're testing out dishes, it's also crucial that you look at how much time it takes to cook each one. How much time is active and inactive? Can some of the dishes overlap? How much oven space do I have?
When I create big five-course meals, I start a day ahead of time and prep everything that I can. In restaurants, this is how we prep for dinner service. When you make your timeline write down what you'll be doing between one time and the next; try planning it out in 15-minute increments or even 5 minutes. And color-code inactive time vs. active time. Ensure that you have enough room in your oven or on your stove.
After looking at your food timeline, you'll be able to see when you need to start cooking and when your guests can arrive. With a formal dinner party, it's unlikely that you'll have every dish ready to serve, food likely needs to be plated up, or a few remaining steps in the cooking process completed. As everyone is eating, you may need to get up from the party and finish cooking. This gives your guests a little show but ensures food isn't just sitting on the table getting dry. Since you need to plan this out, you'll need to time out how long it'll be to eat each course if you're serving multiple courses. I usually plan for about 10-15 minutes.
So, you've got your food timeline down, know when your guests will arrive, know how long it'll be for each dish to be plated and eaten. Following the dinner party, it's always good practice to serve light cookies or small desserts, so be sure to plan time for this at the end of your evening.
Food & Drink
Now, this is where things get slightly messy. When choosing your food, you must keep two things in mind: your guests and your timeline. A group of people with a refined pallet will require more planning than a group of people used to Minnesota Hot Dish. Then there is the matter of your timeline. Make dishes that can be prepped ahead of time or the day before. Can you portion ingredients the day before? Cut herbs? Prepare cookie or pastry dough? Anything you can do ahead of time will help you on the day of your party.
But now to the fun stuff. What courses should you serve, and in what order? I think five courses is the perfect number for a formal dinner party and here is why. You get a full span of what food has to offer both in your cooking and drinks. It gives the food enough room to pair with each other, but it's not too much where you feel stuffed. The more courses you have, the smaller each course should be.
For your courses, I recommend starting the evening off with a selection of cocktails or lighter drinks. While this doesn't count as a course, it'll prepare your guests for what's ahead. Begin your meal with a soup or salad, followed by a reliever course to prepare your guest for a heavier main course. Follow this by a poultry or game dish, which will then lead to a cheese course. At the very end, you can serve your dessert. But your evening shouldn't stop there. After all the food, your guests need time to relax with a few lighter food items and drinks. Finish off the night with small cookies and desserts to pair with tea, coffee, or wine.
**A reliever course is a light course, often consisting of a fruit that'll clear one's pallet.
Does this sound like a lot of food? Perhaps, but remember, each course isn't massive.
When it comes to the type of food you get, it's a good rule of thumb to never use the same fruit or main flavor note twice. For example, don't use orange twice in your cooking. Each dish should build off the next; if your serving chilled oranges in syrup, add a little citrus to the next course. It's about a journey through the food to create a symphony of flavor at the end.
Food Is an important part of any dinner party, but so are the drinks. A wine pairing has the power to make or break your cooking. This is why I highly recommend buying a book called What to Drink With What You Eat or talking to a sommelier at your local wine store. Be very picky in your drink pairing; it's an integral part of every meal. I even pick out the water from a spring near my house at my parties. Even water can change your meal based on its PH levels and source.
Though food and drink is the highlight of your dinner party, the décor should be carefully thought out as well. Beginning with your tablecloth, ensure that there aren't any fold creases, refrain from using placemats as it detracts from the spread of silverware and use a charger instead, also ensure that your tableware and glassware are clean of any water spots.
As for your silverware and glassware, ensure that you have a glass and different utensil for every course. This may sound over the top, but this is traditional how a table is supposed to be set and is truly a statement piece when your guests get their first glimpse of the table.
When looking at a centerpiece, keep it clean and simple; for Christmas, I used a few garland pieces with candles and small ornaments scattered throughout. Ensure that your place setting and food are the stars of the show!
Branching off of the décor and timeline, between each course, you'll need to have the dishes bussed, make time for this in your timeline and leave room for you to set these dishes, so you don't clutter your kitchen or dining room.
All this may sound like a lot of work for one person, and it is, so having someone to help you in the kitchen can be a great relief. You can also consider hiring a private chef; often times, they will do all the planning, cooking, and clean-up for you, which means less stress for you!
Putting on a dinner party is not the easiest of tasks, but once you see your table set, smell the food in your kitchen, and see your guest's reaction to your hard work, it is gratifying.
We wish you the best of luck in your dinner parties, an experience that everyone will enjoy.
"The Flying Chef"