As I venture into my late-twenties, I’m sure I’m regressing. That little girl – who used to invite her toy cat, teddy and oddly-cherished ceramic frog to a weekly tea-party, using (unbeknownst to Mumma Bear) the finest crockery from the ‘off-limits’ cupboard – has been reborn. Scrap the London cocktails and restaurant dining, I want to be the host!
Granted, this can be a challenge in a house-share of five people where, from time to time, you have to double ‘slap in the face’ your housemates by not inviting them to your soiree AND ask that they vacate their own property. Nevertheless, Nigella-level hosting has been achieved and, with that, many lessons learned.
So, here is my pretentious guide to the perfect dinner party…
Stick to what you know. Or at the very least do a test-run. Nothing adds unnecessary pressure to your party than attempting a meal you’ve never mastered. We all want our guests to walk away believing we are more ‘in-control’ than Kate Middleton’s perfectly set mane, so keep the illusion alive and deliver something you know delivers.
Prep ahead. You want to spend time with your guests, yes? So give yourself as little as possible to do on the night so you can enjoy it. Pour yourself a glass of wine, make sure your partner doesn’t mention that thing to your guest and indulge in the fact that you’ve got s@#t covered.
Start cooking a little earlier than you think. It’s inevitable that Diane is going to start dishing the dirt on her latest love conquest, and whilst you sit tight hearing how Dave has an unforgivable amount of dry skin, your food is sat waiting for attention. When you finally reach the ‘climax’ of the story, it’s 10.30pm and everyone has just realised how hungry they are and, yet, have cleared 90% of the wine. Help yourself and your downstairs bathroom – get cooking.
Don’t be THAT cook. Serve up and shut up. No need to apologise for your perfectly cooked steak in order to receive a compliment. Let the guests guide the ‘this is the most delicious dinner I have ever eaten’ and ‘onion in your gravy, who knew?!’ conversation (unless you’re opening them up to potential food poisoning then honesty is the best policy).
Make a playlist for BACKGROUND music. You are not David Guetta, so don’t try and ‘get the party started’ if you’re sitting down to a meal. Find that sweet-spot of music that sets the joyful tone without distracting your guests from conversation. I would always recommend a bit of Michael Bublé, Ed Sheeran, Jason Mraz or a 70s medley – nothing puts a smile on your guests faces like Earth, Wind & Fire.
Add some class with a cloth napkin. In fact, go the whole hog and get yourself a snazzy dinner service. It can come out party after party and you’ll feel the wonderful pride that can’t be match by the Supermarket ‘value’ crockery you balance on a pillow in front of the television every weeknight. Most (if not all) of my dinnerware is from Next – it’s beautiful, hard-wearing and all their ranges seem to mix and match effortlessly.
Don’t rely on your guest to BYO. We all have friends who notoriously contribute diddly squat to a dinner party other than a sincere thank you at the end of the night (of course you’re thankful, you just got merry and full for free) but even the most reliable of folk can forget things at home or be running too late to pick something up on the way.
Everyone loves a candle! They are inexpensive, ambient and if scented can transport your guests to an Arabian temple (or a 6 year old’s birthday if you fancy the Yankee ‘Birthday Cake’ candle).
Don’t forget the salt and pepper. When it comes to seasoning, think of the masses. Not everyone will have a tongue impenetrable to salt that forces you to carry small sachets in your bag (like me). So tone it down and let people go that extra mile themselves.
I don’t care how many times they offer, do not let the guests do the dishes. I find the good ol’rule of ‘one cooks and one clears up’ works well, if the chef has been considerate enough to tidy along the way and not use every single pot and pan available. Be prepared for your guests to do the obligatory ‘let me help’, and go back at them with a forceful ‘sit down or I’ll break your arm’.
Leave to soak. A preemptive clear up is always a good thing. That beef fat seared to the bottom of the pan will not be a welcome joy whilst nursing your hangover the next morning. At the very least, stack and put the chaos into some order and let your most abused equipment soak.
Just desserts. It may seem indulgent but even a bit of cheese can make it feel like more of an occasion than your mate popping over to watch the football and staying long enough to warrant feeding. Keep your dessert simple and, ideally, prepared in advance. At this point Diane has delved deeper than ever and is recounting tales of her childhood sweetheart that can only be consoled with a third bottle of wine. Let’s not let standards slip with a sloppily served dessert. Get it prepared and presentable ahead of time.
Enjoy yourself! At the end of the day, you have your nearest and dearest around you, so if you burn the starter, spill the main and split the dessert, who better to pay witness than your semi-judgmental entourage.
Photography by Kyle Galvin