The dinner party is back. With the genre of the cookery television programme gaining momentum over the past decade, the widely recognised ‘foodie’ personality trait and various methods of eating earning serious attention, it was inevitable. Dinner parties may not have caught up to your social circles quite yet, being currently reserved for those old schoolers who never stopped throwing them, or ‘edgy’ youngsters who believe they have conjured up the concept themselves. The latter, however, indicates that it is only a matter of time before the Dinner Party reenters mainstream culture, so consider this a warning.
To get a feel for the trend, turn to Eat with, a website matching hosts to guests. Each host, predominantly chefs or those in the food business, invites a certain amount of people to dinner in their own home, for a price. Members of EatWith can browse the meals on offer and pick which to attend, meaning that in most cases, the guests are varied and unfamiliar with one another. The atmosphere is light and much more personal than in a restaurant – chefs dine with guests in an intimate setting and are free to cook whatever they chose, unbound by budgets and bulk buying. From vegan, Japanese cooking to authentic Indian cuisine, these meals are exciting and ironically, to this generation, novel.
Dining is now about the visual, as well as the taste. Instagram snaps of artistically arranged plates have made this a focal point for hosting. This does not need to be a source of tension; paying attention to colours, height and space on the plate will result in more attractive dishes. Whilst this does not affect the quality of the food, it is an added extra and way of demonstrating care towards your guests.
Dinner parties are as much about the ambience than the food. A clean, well lit space is essential. Add to the mood with candles and small vases of coloured flowers dotted around the room. If you’re a regular host, fake flowers are a thriftier option. Close the curtains and turn on the lamps for an intimate setting. Music enhances this feeling and 8tracks.com, a curated radio app, is a great option; simply pick a mood such as ‘relaxed’ and situation or genre such as ‘dining’ and ‘jazz’ for pre-selected tracks perfectly suited to your needs.
If you do not know your soup spoon from your dessert, or you water glass from your wine glass, brush up. A thoughtfully laid table is easy and should be a pre-requisite to any dining occasion. This is not to say that you must approach the evening with uncharacteristic formality, if your menu and taste is far more free and easy, then opt for large serving bowls instead of individual plates, and empty jam jars stuffed with bright flowers or tea lights instead of a grand, tall bouquet.
Now, for the menu: begin with an alcoholic beverage or two. This both allows your guests to relax and shake themselves of those archaic over-formal dinner party associations, and buys you time in the kitchen to prepare your first course. The usual wine or beer is fine, but a cocktail is better. This could be nothing more than champagne mixed with peach juice or vodka and pomegranate juice with a few mint leaves, the point is that this shows care, and looks far harder than it actually is.
This should, in fact, be your motto for the entire party: serving things that seem impressive, but are actually low in effort. The number one trick is to select a menu that allows you to prepare as much as possible in advance and/or is acceptable to serve cold or at room temperature. Think: whole fish, perhaps filleted, halved and stuffed with pesto or herbs that can be baked then eaten warm, or whole chickens, simply marinated over night then stuffed into the oven an hour before the guests are due to arrive.
You must remember that you are not expected to behave as a professional chef would – one starchy and one vegetable side dish are plenty. The guests will enjoy their evening far more if you are relaxed and dining alongside them, as opposed to running to and from the kitchen looking flustered. If you’re not a comfortable baker, then buy a dessert from a bakery and call it a night, life’s too short! The important things are to ensure that your guests are significantly fed, wined and watered throughout the night.
And remember, it’s only one night – if it’s awful you’ll laugh about it in a few years.