Hospitality @ Home: Dinner Party Set Up Timeline

As the weather grows colder (hopefully? In most places, though not California, *deep sigh*) we all find our revels moving indoors. When you find yourself in the mood for throwing a dinner party, as I often do, here’s a rough timeline.

Two Weeks (yes, I said Two. As in 2, go with it) Before Your Party

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither should your dinner party, ok?

– Reach out to your guests. Send em a text. Create a facebook event. Write an email. Or make everyone feel like Queen Victoria by sending them a handwritten invitation, and request RSVP’s.

One Week before your party,

– You should have heard from your invitees, but if you haven’t, reach out to the stragglers.

– As your guests joyously reply that they cannot wait to attend your fete, be sure to ask them if they have any dietary restrictions or food allergies.

– Plan your menu. Choose dishes that can be cooked a day or two ahead, or dishes that come together quickly on the day. Soups make a great first course (and can be made a day ahead), Braised meats can be cooked the day before as an entree, panna cotta, mousse cakes, or enriched cakes like date or almond cakes hold well in the freezer and thaw quickly on the day.

But be aware of your limitations while menu planning. If you and your guests aren’t big on the sweets, why not offer a cheese plate as the dessert course. Alternately, if you are possession of a sweet tooth, but you are a disaster with pastry, dessert is one of the easiest things to buy in.

– Place any necessary orders. With the butcher or the local bakery for that 3-pound snapper or leg of lamb, or mirror glaze mousse cake.

2 days before

– buy groceries.

– prepare dessert (if you are cooking one. Picking one up on the day is certainly an option)- an enriched cake like a date cake or an almond cake can hold up well to freezing. Panna cotta or creme brulee need a long rest in refrigeration, and will be fine for 48 hours.

– deep clean areas guests will spend the most time in. A few toys and coasters laying around are nothing to worry over. This is the foundational layer pass, the dusting the top of the bookshelves, the vacuuming under the sofa, the discarding of the pile of magazines that have collected under the coffee table.

– re-arrange any furniture that needs to re-arranged.

1 day before

– Braise/ roast/ prepare mis en place

– make ice

– polish your glassware and silverware

– Clean and stock the bathroom that your guests will use on the night. Sometimes this is your only bathroom. In which case take this time to remove or stash any cosmetics, medications, etc, that you don’t want anyone to see. Also, remove any towels that you wouldn’t want guests to dry their hands on. It’s a nice touch to have a stain removing pen or stain removing wipes placed in a dish on the countertop, too. It’s not a party until someone spills red wine on their white shirt.

6 hours before

– Pull out any dishes that need to thaw or come to room temperature

– Do a final surface sweep of any clutter that would otherwise embarrass you in the guest areas. Set stacks of coasters or cocktail napkins on the corner of any surfaces where your guests might set a drink down.

– have a stack of clean absorbent towels (paper is fine if that is all you have) stashed in a discreet place near the dinner table and the bar so they are easily at hand for any (inevitable) spills.

– Arrange any last minute mis-en-place. If your roast is finished with a last minute pan sauce, chop the shallots and pre-measure wine for it. If your first course is a salad, wash the greens and prepare the dressing now so all you need to do is toss it together just before serving (though a hardy green like Kale can handle 6 hours in a citrusy dressing, so you can put it together well ahead….. and now you know why you see kale salads on so many restaurant menus….)

– Set table. Or if you have a partner or other household minions, this is a good task for them.

2 hours before

– Get dressed in your dinner outfit (don’t be a hero, put an apron over your couture).

– Set your lighting. Will there be candles over a zillion surfaces? Lay them out now.

– Put on music.

– Set out canapes and arrange bar, in case any guests wander in early.

– Set up coffee/ tea tray for after dinner and set aside.

1 hour before

-Whip cream for dessert- if needed.

-Put finishing touches on any dishes that need them. Wrap platters with foil and hold them in a warm (not hot!) oven until you are ready to bring them to the table.

-Pour yourself a glass of wine.

-Take the first bite of your canapes so that when your guests arrive, no one will be too self-conscious to take the first bite. Seriously. Thats just being a good host.

Restaurant 101: Planning a Party Out

when planning a private party at a restaurant, here are some tips to keep in mind:

1. Know your budget. You can have a fabulous Bridal shower or 60th Birthday celebration at any budget. Establishing your budget up front will save you a lot of time with venues, because it allows them to give you the best options within your budget. Beware of the old ‘champagne tastes on a beer budget’ trope, though. If you have a tight budget, don’t approach the most expensive restaurant in town for a Saturday night reservation and expect to talk them down. You will be wasting everyone’s time. It’s not a very enjoyable party if you have to watch the bottom line of the check the whole time to ensure you don’t go over budget. Set your budget first. Then pursue options that fit.

2. Know your guest count. Even if your guest count is only a ballpark, have a reasonably good idea of how many people you are hoping to entertain. Some restaurants have several options for parties of various sizes and if you book a room for 30, but in the end will have 45 guests, this may change things considerably.

3. Set a menu. Set menus are designed to speed the service of large parties and prevent long waits for food. Frequently they are multi-coursed affairs not to gouge you, but to ensure that there is food on the table while the entrees are being cooked. Before you set a menu, ask your guests if they have any dietary restrictions or food allergies that need to be accomodated to ensure that there is an option for them on the menu. Though, generally, it is a good idea to have at least one option that is vegan and/or gluten-free on your menu in order to be safe.

3. Pick a beverage package. Beverage packages are designed to prevent sticker shock at the end of your party by enabling you to plan in advance for how much your party will cost. They are not designed to gouge you. If you don’t want to spring for a full blown bar package, most restaurants are happy to run a tab on-consumption and cut it off when a certain pre-determined limit is met– i.e. “Guests can order whatever they want, but can you let me know when it hits $500 so I can cut it off then?” It behooves you, also, to specify if you would prefer tap or bottled water for the party at this time, as well. As if you prefer bottled, you’ll want to ensure that the restaurant has plenty on hand.

4. Ask about restrictions on decorations, times, etc. Restaurants love to celebrate your milestones with you; it is big part of our business! But if you plan to decorate the private room for your party, check with the venue to ensure there are not restrictions. This is not a scenario where it is better to ask forgiveness than permission, as there may be restrictions due the historic nature of some buildings. It is not sexy to talk about, but there are also places where decor cannot be placed because it would impede people escaping the building if there is an emergency like a fire or an earthquake. If you intend to decorate, find out how soon before your party you can arrive to decorate, and also find out if there is a certain time that your party is required to clear the space. Especially during the busy holiday and wedding seasons, there may be other events in the wings waiting for their party in the same space.

5. Don’t move the furniture, or the lights, or adjust the sound system, or the thermostat yourself; ask a staff member. The staff of the restaurant is there to assist you. That is a large part of their job. But they are also responsible for navigating several overlapping systems that operate within the restaurant space. The thermostat you see on the wall may actually be tied to the vents in the kitchen and by adjusting it you could very well be roasting the chefs. What looks like one light switch could actually be daisy-chained to lights in other parts of the restaurant that you cannot see. Furniture placed by the staff is placed in accordance with fire exits and egress for service, and if anything needs to be moved, the staff is more familiar with the weight and dimensions of each piece of furniture and less likely to be injured in it’s moving.

6. Manage your guests. Usually, no food will come from the kitchen until the chef has the whole order from the party in her hand. So if you have hungry guests, encourage everyone to sit down and let the servers know their selections. If you need help communicating to your guests, you can always request that the service staff help you usher guests to their seats with a gentle The host has requested that everyone be seated to place their orders.

7. Set it and forget it. Order all courses at the same time. The staff will organize the timing of the courses based on the pace of your party.

8. If you plan to give toasts or speeches, let the staff know ahead of time, so they can time the courses accordingly. Try to time your toasts or speeches between the courses. Generally, between entrees and desserts are a good time, as you can be secure in the knowledge that your guests won’t be slowly starving while Uncle Owen expounds on his blessings for the guest of honor.

Speculaas Cookies

This will make me sound like an unabashed nerd, but a well designed grocery store is my happy place. I love turning the corners around aisles to discover unexpected treasures on the end caps.  Encountering baby vegetables of any variety can turn my day around like that Dead or Alive song.

While at Trader Joe’s the other day, picking up some fancy cheese for a Sunday dinner, I impulsively picked up a box of those deliciously addictive Speculoos cookies.  I’d had them before, but in the course of my daily life of writing books and waiting tables, I had forgotten about these gingery, crispy delights.

The Gent and I proceeded to devour the box within 48 hours.

We needed more. So many more. In a cookie-craving frenzy, I pawed through my pantry and uncovered cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, molasses…. I had eggs, and butter, and flour, even Almond Meal.  Then I was called off work last night and the evening unrolled before me like a blank canvas waiting to be filled.

It was cookie kismet. Continue reading

Pumpkin & Spice Infused Vodka

pumpkin sugar pumpkin pumpkin vodka recipe

For Thanksgiving this year, I felt like doing something different.  For me, holiday cooking is not so much about cooking the same dishes year after year. No, the holidays are the time that I try over the top recipes that I would never ordinarily have an excuse to make.  This is the time that I bring out the recipes with obscure spices, with several steps, with long preparation times, like this Pumpkin and Spice infused vodka.

It’s adapted from this recipe on Food52.

I used pumpkin instead of butternut squash because I think it’s more seasonal.

To peel and disembowel the pumpkin, pop it in the microwave for 2 minutes on high, then place it on a cutting board and slice it in half down the middle.  Scoop out the guts (reserving the seeds to toast for a yummy snack), then peel and cube the pumpkin.

Continue reading

Restaurant 101: Holiday Party Survival Tips

Judging by the number of revelers I have in my restaurant right now– this is THE WEEK of company holiday parties.

Here are a few tips from the inside to help you make it through unscathed (and without scathing any of the staff):

  • 1. Check out the menu before you arrive: Most any restaurant is going to require a party of 20 or more guests to choose a set menu. Try to get a gander at the menu from your office party planner in advance if you can.  In addition to helping you figure out how flush your company coffers are (hint: Lobster= $$$, chicken everything = get your resume ready), you can figure out if you have any allergies that need to be addressed.
  • 2. Discuss Allergies in Advance: If you have serious allergies that you are not sure can be accommodated by the menu you’ve just spied, call the restaurant so we can make a plan in advance. NOTE: This is only for serious allergies. If you just don’t like onions, that’s not what I’m talking about here. If you are seriously allergic to chiles, and going to a mexican restaurant, please call us in advance so we can make a dish that suits your needs. We want you to enjoy your party as much as everyone else!
  • 3. Stick to the menu: Trying to order something that is not on your party’s pre-selected menu only delays your service. And by your service, that means potentially the service of your entire party. If you’d checked the menu in advance, and called the restaurant with any food allergies or dietary restrictions, then we would already have a dish for you…..
  • 4. The coffee is trying to tell you something: When the coffee comes out, that means the bar is closing, the check is dropping, and you should probably start searching your pockets for your parking ticket. Sometimes your host has set a pre-determined end time for the party for budget reasons, and sometimes the restaurant is just closing soon….. If you realize after the coffee cups are empty that you are the only people still in the restaurant, then the polite thing to do is get ready to go. If every 3 minutes a different staff member buzzes by your table to ask if they can “get anything else for you?” then it is really time to take the hint so the bus boys can move all the tables back and get out in time to catch the last train home.
  • 5. Share: You may be in a party of 50, but you are probably not the only party in the restaurant at any given time. Understand that there are other guests, not only in the restaurant, but also in your party.  Avoid bottle-necking with your buddies in major thoroughfares. Not only is this greatly appreciated by the staff, it also decreases the chances that you’ll wind up with a manhattan or a lobster thermidor spilled on your Santa sweater. Pay attention to the pacing of the party, too, so that you don’t delay service for your whole group.
  • 6. Order early: If your party has a coursed menu with a choice of entree for each guest, be ready to order by the end of your cocktail hour. The chef is going to pace your experience off of this order. Typically, the last round of appetizers won’t come out of the kitchen until the chef has the entree order in his hand. Otherwise, the wait between courses would be too long. If the staff comes around to advise the party-goers that the host “requests everyone to find their seats, we’ll take the order in a moment,” don’t be the lone group of holdouts snickering at the corner of the bar. The entree order isn’t going to go the kitchen until it is complete. So you are delaying the revelry of all of your office mates. Understand, also,  that any additional requests you make of the servers while they are taking the order (another glass of wine, a new napkin) are not going to happen until the order is complete.
  • 7. Don’t be afraid to call the restaurant: The best source of information for parking, directions, ingredients in certain dishes, etc, is the restaurant. Don’t be afraid to call us, that’s what we’re here for.

And, if you are trying to book a party at the last minute (because someone in the corner office forgot about Chrstmachanakwanzakah until today)—- Be Flexible. It’s the busiest week of the year for most restaurants, but if you can be flexible on your time frame, we can usually find a way to help you have an awesome party.

These are the decorations in my building. They look disappointed in all of us.

Video: Brandied Cranberry Recipe

It’s been a while in the oven, but I’m so excited to post my first video to Where the Sidework Ends! This recipe is one of my favorites to make during the holidays. In Los Angeles, where it still is 70 degrees in November, you kind of have to lay on a thick patina of Holiday food and decor to note the passing seasons. This recipe is a lovely way to do that.

I love to use the brandied cranberries in cocktails, but they are also versatile as a garnish. My sous chef friend, Coco, popped these babies on a simple salad of mango, avocado, and panela cheese last night and they were out of this world.

Special thanks to the Gent for his editing prowess….

Brandied Cranberries:

1 cup whole fresh cranberries

1/2 cup sugar

1/8 cup water (2 tablespoons)

1/2 cup brandy, divided into two 1/4 cup portions

In a heavy saucepan over medium heat, combine cranberries, sugar, water, and one 1/4 cup of brandy. Simmer until cranberries split open (about 3-5 minutes). Remove from heat and add remaining brandy. Allow to cool at least 2 hours before using.

The cranberries just get better the longer they sit in the syrup, so you can make these 3-5 days in advance. With all the sugar and alcohol in the recipe, these will keep well for about 2-3 weeks in the refrigerator. But you’ll eat them before that, for sure.