lentils by Adam Roberts

lentils by Adam Roberts

A few months ago, my husband Craig and I hosted the titular Jo of Cup of Jo, plus regular contributor Jenny Rosenstrach and her husband Andy for dinner. You may recall this meal because Jenny wrote a terrific post about being a dinner party guest that sparked lots of conversation. Now I’d like to take you through the looking glass to the other side of this dinner party: what does it take it to be a good dinner party host?

Allow me to tout my own expertise: I host more dinner parties than anyone I know — it’s less a hobby and more of a compulsion. I love cooking for other people and I do so several times a month, at least. Here are my seven rules for achieving success when you’re having people over:

1. Choose a menu that you’re excited to make. That may seem obvious, but so many rookie hosts cook out of obligation rather than passion and that translates to a sense of obligation amongst the guests (as in: I guess I have to finish this dried out piece of Beef Wellington.) Your best bet is to figure out what you’re craving and start there. At the very least, you’ll be excited to eat the results and that makes your guests feel excited, too.

2. Figure out the timing before you start cooking. I know we all wanted to be done with math after high school, but it’s worthwhile to do a little calculating when timing out your menu. For example, a few weeks ago, I cooked a six-hour lasagna for my husband Craig’s birthday and to get that on the table, along with a Caesar salad and key lime pie for dessert, I made the pie the day before and the Caesar dressing that morning. That way, I could spend the afternoon focusing on the labor-intensive lasagna without breaking a sweat as guests arrived. When the lasagna was cooling, I made the salad. Now who’s laughing about flunking AP Calculus?!

3. Don’t rush things. I’m an anxious person, so when people come over, my tendency is to speed things along: not because I’m not enjoying myself, but because I’m so antsy about getting dinner just right. But that’s all wrong! Craig is the one who imposed a mandatory cocktail hour when guests arrive. This ensures that everyone can relax and settle in before I march them to the table to behold my creations. Plus, it’s a chance for Craig to show off his cocktail-making skills. Fun fact: Dinner guests are more generous about the food when they’re slightly buzzed. So, cocktail hour is a win-win for everyone.

Eric Kim dinner party

Eric Kim at Adam and Craig’s house

4. Try to make as much ahead as you possibly can. If you’re planning to make six rib-eye steaks for six hungry people in a tiny New York kitchen on a stovetop without ventilation, my hat’s off to you. Everyone else, may I suggest that you try to steer away from dishes that require you to cook them á la minute? (That’s the fancy French way of saying “to order.”) Instead, consider braises like coq au vin, hearty stews, even elaborate soups that you can make ahead and heat back up when everyone gets there. Not only will you feel calmer, these dishes often taste better the next day, after the flavors have a chance to meld. Again: win-win!

5. Keep wine glasses and water glasses full. Even though your job in the kitchen may be over once you serve the food, your job at the table activates the second you sit down. Keep an eye on people’s plates and glasses. If they finish their portion and they’re eyeing someone else’s slice of meatloaf, ask them if they’d like some more. And refill their glasses – whether they’re drinking wine, water, sparkling water, beer, juice – it doesn’t matter, just keep the liquid flowing. It’s a tiny gesture that goes a long way.

6. Take a beat before dessert. This is an extension of the “don’t rush things” rule. Again, as a host you may be eager to move things along once you clear the table and start setting places for dessert, but most people will still be processing their main course, both emotionally and gastrointestinally. Give them a break and a breather before bringing out that Devil’s Food Cake that you spent so much time making. Oh, and this goes without saying, but always offer dessert. Even if they say they don’t need it, almost everyone loves dessert. And if someone refuses, take a mental note and never invite that person to dinner again.

7. Don’t do the dishes in front of your guests. The illusion that you’re trying to create at a dinner party is that none of this is work, all of this is pleasure. So, what kind of impression will you be leaving people with if they see you laboring over a giant sink full of dishes as they walk out the door? Instead of feeling elated and asking “how does she do it?” they’ll feel guilty about not offering to help you scrub up in the kitchen. Do what I do: pretend the dishes don’t exist! Pour yourself more wine, cut yourself a little extra dessert, and take a load off. You deserve it. You can do the dishes in the morning.

Adam Roberts Craig Johnson husband

Adam and Craig

Adam Roberts writes the bi-weekly newsletter Amateur Gourmet and is the author of three books, including Secrets of the Best Chefs and Give My Swiss Chards to Broadway: The Official Broadway Lover’s Cookbook (with Tony-nominated actor, Gideon Glick). He lives with his husband and dog in Brooklyn.

Thank you, Adam! We love you and your newsletter.

P.S. The best party snack of all time, and are you a party host or enthusiastic guest?

(Top photo of Adam’s lentil recipe.)