Hospitality @ Home: Buffet Set Up

With Turkey Day around the corner, here are some things to help you serve up your buffet with ease and style.

1. How many people will be at your party? More than 10 people, and you’ll want to be sure that you set your buffet so it can operate from both sides. For small gatherings “buffets” can be set on your stovetop in covered pots so that hot food can keep warm over a low flame, with plates and cutlery on a nearby countertop.

2. Do dishes need to stay hot? You can keep dishes warm by placing hot food on hot plates and keeping them covered. Soups and melty dips can be set in fondue pots over a sterno flame, or in crockpots to keep warm. Get your surge protector on and be sure to tape or otherwise secure loose cords so guests don’t trip over them.

3. Consider the silverware. If you are placing the silverware on the buffet, place it at the front of the buffet, rolled tightly in a roll up that can easily be held or even tucked in a pocket. But if it is possible, it is more efficient to pre-set the cutlery and napkins at individual seats at the non-buffet tables.

4. Consider the sauces. Place saucers beside serving dishes as a landing spot for spoons/ servingware so the tablecloth does not become covered in food debris.

5. Prevent traffic jams. Place canapes and beverages at different locations (if you have the room) to prevent bottlenecks. At a bare minimum, set your beverages on a separate table across the room from the food.

6. Be cagey. If you are on a budget, place plentiful, less expensive dishes at the beginning of the buffet and the more expensive, scarcer items at the end. As in, put your dinner rolls, and mashed potatoes at the beginning, the steak and shrimp at the end.

7. Be fancy. Create levels. By skewering meatballs or other small bites with bamboo sticks, or placing dishes with a low profile (like cut sushi rolls, tortillas, cookies) on literal pedestals. If you don’t have a plethora of cake stands, you can create levels by placing plates on overturned teacups or mason jars. Or if that’s not your aesthetic, you can place a row of sturdy boxes down the center of your buffet table, cover them with linens and tuck your serving plates around and on top of them. If you want to be extra opulent, you can fill the space between the plates with seasonal fruits, vegetables, and sturdy kale leaves to completely cover the fabric components, creating a “cascading cornucopia” effect.

Hospitality @ Home: Home Party Set Up with Bar

At the very least, separate the bar/ beverage area from the food area. Browsing a buffet is a different speed than dashing off a martini or pouring a glass of Chianti. Plus beverage areas involve sloshing, splashing, ice, lemon wedges, and all manner of things that you wish to keep cold while you want to keep food room-temperature-to-hot. Separate the bar from the food.

If you have the room, separate the canapes and desserts from the main food area especially if your party is more of a cocktail reception affair. Spreading the different courses through the space encourages mingling with minimal effort.

But, back to the bar.

A good self-serve bar needs:

Glasses that match the offerings (wine glasses, rocks glasses, highballs, cocktail glasses, etc.)

Ice

Cocktail shakers

Garnishes

Towels

Wine

Spirits

Mixers

Bottle opener

Wine key

If you are serving cocktails, set your bar area near a sink so that cocktail shaker ice can be easily poured away. Alternately you can pre-mix a batch of a signature cocktail (Moscow Mules, Bloody Marys, Gold Rushes, Margaritas, Mojitos, Brambles, and Smashes all work beautifully), pour into a pitcher and set beside a serving a note (“Pour over ice and add a squeeze of lime”, etc.)

If you are setting a full service bar for cocktail service, place like things with like– wine with wine, spirits with spirits, mixers with mixers, garnishes with garnishes, tools with other tools. Corral your tools (bar spoons, wine key, bottle opener) to a small dish or tray so it is clear where to look for them.

In addition to an ice bucket, it is a good idea to provide a small, elegant receptacle for bottle caps, corks, wine wrapping.

Return to the bar area periodically to tidy up, refresh ice, empty the debris bin and stock with fresh glasses.

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.

Restaurant Etiquette: Children in the Dining Room

As the classic 1980’s ballad goes, children are the future. And there are many things that we ought to teach them well, one of which is how to co-exist in a shared space with other people.

Some of my favorite guests in restaurants are precocious little gourmands, but there are some things that adult companions of children would do well to keep in mind when dining out:

1The waitstaff are not childcare professionals. They are here to perform a job that involves carrying hot, heavy plates and trays full of highly breakable glassware. No one wants to see a child with a bowl of hot soup or a tray of martinis spilled on them. Not to mention that the restaurant is liable for the safety of all of their guests and staff during the course of the service. So should another guest trip over an unaccompanied toddler who is running through the hallway to the lavatories, it could be a horrendous collision. It is also worth noting that restaurants are not in the business of vetting their customers. Permitting unaccompanied children to race through a dining room with several entrances and exits is no different than permitting a child to race through a carnival or a department store.

2Make special needs known in advance. While restaurant staffs are not childcare professionals, we are in the business of working with the public and accommodating may different types of people. If your party needs space for a stroller, a wheelchair, or a more secluded table to help ease the anxiety of a young diner who is sensitive to large groups of strangers, etc, let us know in advance. We want you and your guests to be comfortable, and knowing in advance helps us plan for you.

3Ask if the restaurant offers a children’s menu before you arrive. While some establishments may not have a formal children’s menu, most any restaurant will have an informal array of dishes (plain pasta, lightly seasoned chicken with vegetables) that are designed to please the palates of young diners. If, on inquiring about a children’s menu the response from the restaurant is that they do not offer alternatives for children, or that they do not have high chairs or booster seats available then you know that this establishment is not attempting to be child friendly and your party may be more satisfied by taking your dinner elsewhere.

4 Most restaurants will offer crayons or coloring sheets for children, but not all do. It is a good idea to have some diversion available for the children in your party. Though if your diversion makes noise, such as a movie on a tablet or phone, please bring headphones. The table next to you may not wish to have the dialog to Finding Nemo as the soundtrack to their anniversary dinner.

5 If your child has reached her limit and needs to go, the most polite move is to request to have your food boxed and have the check brought rather than subject the entire dining room to the dulcet screams of a toddler meltdown.

Hospitality @ Home: Coffee

When you are hosting a dinner party in your home, serving coffee is an excellent way to signal guests that it is time to find their galoshes and perform the skedaddle.

The best way to do this is to prepare in advance.

To some, coffee has a catechism. Only single origin beans are accepted! Only shade grown! Only beans that have been roasted in the last forty-eight hours, and ground thirty-seven seconds before they meet 179 degree water. DECAF IS AN UNNATURAL ABOMINATION.

It is fine if you are such an aficionado. As a host, however, I find it best to consider the level of your guest’s coffee observances and meet them on their level as closely as you can. Certainly curious guests will enjoy expanding their palates a bit, though few will be excited about a treatise on the Arabica bean at the end of a lengthy meal.

The best way to serve coffee at home is with the tools you already own, whether it is French press, Espresso pot, Chemex, Pour-over, electric basket brewer, percolator. Unless you are hosting a party of forty, in which case, call your local party rental company and rent one of those silver monsters, with plenty of cups and saucers.

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Restaurant 101: The Cell Phone Conundrum

The LA Times food section today featured a nice little piece on one new variable in dining rooms across the city, the potential hurdles that the presence of cell phones creates. A couple of additional things to consider:

For a restaurant, the cell phone truly is a hurdle to great service. It not only makes the table a minefield for potentially disastrous spills, but the cell phone in the restaurant is the culprit for more mis-orders than I can count.

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