My grandparents carving the turkey–long before I was around!

It’s just days away from Thanksgiving and after Friday we’re all going to be anticipating the holidays–first Chanukah, which begins on the evening of December 12 this year, then, of course, Christmas and New Years.

Now as personal chefs, I have no doubt you could throw a dinner party with your eyes closed and hands tied behind your back. At least figuratively. But my expectation is you know what you’re doing. If not, however, (since throwing parties is different from cooking and then packaging meals) or if your clients are planning holiday dinner parties, I thought I’d share with you the expertise of someone who spent much of her adult life entertaining: my mom, Evie.

For as long as I can remember, she’s pretty much been the queen of dinner parties. My dad was in the museum “business” so curators, donors, artists and other colleagues were always coming over. Plus, my parents always loved to have friends and family at the house for meals. My mom is an astoundingly good cook, someone whose gift I continue to aspire to. Until recently, I regularly served as her sous chef, server and dish washer. I was told, “watch and learn.” At age 82, she doesn’t do any real entertaining any more but when she did, for weeks ahead of time she would be chopping, cooking and freezing. The day before a party, the table was set. The day of, only the last-minute cooking and reheating were involved. By the time the guests arrived, she was usually (fairly) rested, ready and able to enjoy the meal along with everyone else.

So, what’s her secret? Several years ago I sat down with her for lunch at a little Vietnamese restaurant  and asked her straight out what she thinks are the keys to a successful dinner party. Watch and learn–and share with clients to make their entertaining less stressful and more enjoyable:

  • Plan your your meal around one special dish and keep the rest simple so you can have a focal point. Most people think that’s the big protein — a leg of lamb, roasted chicken — but it can also be a very special, exotic side dish.
  • Don’t feel that you have to make every dish. Make some yourself and buy some that are prepared — like side dishes, desserts or appetizers. “Back when I was really entertaining a lot, there wasn’t much available so we had to do almost everything ourselves, but today you can go to Trader Joes, Whole Foods, or specialty or ethnic markets and get some very good prepared foods,” she says. Or, ahem, they can ask you to do the cooking–or some of it.
  • When planning the dishes, try to make them stand out in color, texture and, of course, flavor. (I took this to heart. For a recent dinner I planned to serve roasted chicken and rice with dill and fava beans but I was stumped over the vegetable. Mom shook her head at the idea of asparagus or baby artichokes. “Color!,” she decreed. So, I headed over to a local produce wholesaler called Specialty Produce to pick up multi-colored organic mini carrots and red-and-green micro beet greens. The carrots were trimmed and steamed, then tossed in melted butter and honey, lemon juice, minced greens from a stalk of green garlic, and salt and pepper — and placed on a bed of the beet greens.)

  • Make what you can ahead of time and freeze it. That could be soup stock or homemade ice cream or even a pot roast.
  • Along the same lines, do your prep work in advance — chop herbs, marinate proteins, make your salad dressing. Then, the day of the dinner, much of what you have to do is just heating up and putting everything together.
  • Feel free to use short cuts. Make a pie using a prepared pie crust (I like the ones Trader Joe’s sells) or a tart with puff pastry dough. (I cheated twice here. I used puff pastry squares I found at a Hispanic market and I had a container in the freezer of lemon curd that I had made. All I needed to do was pre-bake the puff pastry squares, fill them with the lemon curd, slice the strawberries and melt a little dandelion preserves for the glaze. Easy.)

  • The day before the dinner party, write a detailed time chart of what needs to be done, step by step, so you know when to pre-heat the oven, when to take out meat from the refrigerator to come to room temperature, when to start heating soup, when to start the grill — whatever. Add time for getting yourself (and your family) ready, feeding the dog, vacuuming. Basically, you want everything in your day to be accounted for so that you don’t have a last-minute crisis and to make sure that your dishes are ready to serve at the right time. And — very important so that you won’t be exhausted by the time your guests arrive — with a detailed time chart you can pace yourself throughout the day with little tasks.
  • On the morning of the dinner party, set out your serving dishes and utensils, write their function on a post-it note, then tag it. That way, you don’t have to think about what goes where when your company arrives and you’re distracted.
  • Set the table the day before or early that morning. Pull out wine and water glasses and whatever you’ll need for aperitifs, clean them, and set up that space.
  • Clean up and put things away as you go along so you’re not facing piles of dirty dishes, utensils, and pots and pans after your guests have left.

And, most important, don’t worry so much about impressing your guests with your cooking and focus more on making them comfortable and happy. The more relaxed you are, the more fun everyone will have.

Evie making our traditional family chestnut stuffing many years ago at my brother’s house.

She’s right. She always is. I’m so grateful for all she’s taught me and am looking forward to her help on Wednesday prepping for Thanksgiving now that it’s my turn to host it.

What did your mom teach you about entertaining and what are you teaching your kids–and clients?

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