If You Fail to Plan a Party, You Plan to Fail
Last year was the first time we hosted Thanksgiving. We seated 12, which is the absolute top capacity we can accommodate in our dining room without going double-decker. Moreover, we did this just three days after returning from a week in Mexico.
We entertain pretty frequently, whether it's a casual get together with another couple or a big blowout multicourse dinner party. It's something we enjoy doing. But in order to keep it fun for everyone including us, not to mention to preserve our sanity, we put a fair amount of planning into each event.
Six years ago, we were planning a substantial, five-course Iberian-themed dinner party. Among our friends in attendance was a local chef who was in the process of opening his own Spanish-inflected restaurant, so we were looking to impress.
And then, on the Sunday before our dinner, dpaul tripped and fell while leading a tour, breaking his elbow -- the right one, of course. So he was pretty much useless in the kitchen.
Luckily, as is our wont, we had prepared a comprehensive timeline of events leading up to the party. Using that as my road map, sticking to the deadlines, I was able to execute everything. By the time dinner commenced, everything was ready, the kitchen was clean, and we were rested and even had time for a quick cocktail before the guests arrived.
It may be cliché, but it's true: If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. The more effort you put into preproduction of your party, the less effort you'll need to expend during it, leaving you less frazzled and freer to spend time with your guests. Here's a few things we keep in mind when planning an event:
Anti-procrastinate. If you can make it ahead, do. The farther the better. For Thanksgiving, dpaul made the bread a few days in advance and froze it. The mashed potatoes were done a day ahead, and reheated and flashed in the broiler at the last minute. We've been known to prepare some elements weeks in advance of a dinner.
Delegate. You don't have to do everything yourself. Guests want to contribute, and as long as you play to their strengths, they'll not only alleviate your stress, but greatly enhance the experience of the meal. The corollary to that is:
Be specific. If you're asking people to bring things, make sure you set expectations accordingly. At one friend's Thanksgiving a few years ago, someone brought a huge tureen of soup, to which he retorted, "great, did you bring 20 bowls and spoons?" Identify the gaps in the menu, and tap the people you think are best suited to fill them. Even if you're just having people bring wine, don't be afraid to narrow their options. Sometimes, for multicourse meals, we'll ask individual guests to bring wine to pair with a specific course. If they want further guidance, we'll offer suggestions on specific varietals or regions, or thoughts on what to ask for at the bottle shop.
Recruit. If you're comfortable asking for help from one or more of your guests, have them help with service elements, such as plating, serving or doing dishes. If you're not, consider hiring help. It can be inexpensive (one time we paid a helper $20/hour; your mileage may vary depending on location and negotiation skills), and will allow you all the more time to spend at the table. If you really want to economize on time, consider renting dishware and glassware. Usually you simply pack the plates in the crates simply rinsed, and they're taken back and washed. It's money well spent.
Budget time for everything. Not just the cooking -- set aside time for things like setting the table (ideally at least a day in advance) and going to the market, and don't forget to leave time for personal matters, like showering or taking a nap (the latter being a sine qua non for our entertaining regimen.)
Make a timeline. Once you've got all your pieces together, physically write it out. See how far out you can set your deadlines, so you're not scrambling at the end. Strive to be ready at least 30 minutes in advance of your guests' arrival. Have a cocktail! Remember, it's your party, too.
Of course this will not eliminate the need to spend time in the kitchen, but it will greatly minimize it. Your guests will remember not just a delicious and thoughtful meal, but time spent with their hosts. And you'll remember being a guest at your own party, not feeling like the hired help.