Hosting a Dinner Party? Consult the Pros.
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Entertaining is a means of personal expression and any dinner party, whether an intimate gathering of friends or an elaborate affair with a guest list in the hundreds, is a reflection of the host. Therefore, every detail, from food to entertainment to the choice of stemware, must be coordinated with care and expertise. To better understand the nuances, some of the nation’s top professionals contribute their insights.
Simply put, the primary goal of any event is for every guest to have a memorable, enriching evening. With that in mind, hosts often must sacrifice their own preferences for those of their guests. You may be a vegetarian, but you need to be mindful that an overwhelming majority of your guests are carnivores. Similarly, you might live and breathe Notre Dame football, but a Fighting Irish theme hardly will please everybody, unless it’s the university’s alumni association dinner.
Picking a Caterer
Selecting an independent catering company over a restaurant or hotel has its advantages. “At a restaurant, you have to work with their menu, but a creative caterer can tailor the food to the event, from a Cuban barbecue to a Tuscan feast,” explains Shelley Nohowel, the director of event planning for Jeffrey A. Miller Catering in Philadelphia. She notes that her firm employs chefs from every continent.
While independent catering companies often provide greater flexibility and personalization, some of the most memorable dinner parties involve a renowned chef to elevate the cuisine and add star power to the event. Chef-affiliated catering organizations typically have access to varied venues and enjoy relationships with top entertainers and designers, so don’t hesitate to contact the best chef-driven restaurants in town.
According to Barbara Brass, vice president of sales for Wolfgang Puck Catering, getting to know the client is the first priority. “In catering, communication with our clients is the secret to a successful event.… We really listen to understand exactly what the client’s vision is and we do our best to help them fulfill that goal,” she explains. In that spirit, Brass and her staff collect considerable background information on the nature of the gathering, guest preferences and who in the crowd might need a little extra attention. While small and large occasions present different challenges, Brass insists they all demand a similar approach: “The details determine the success of any size event.”
Prolific restaurateur Stephen Starr oversees a collection of high-profile restaurants in Philadelphia, New York, Atlantic City and Florida. “Setting ourselves apart is a vast repertoire of restaurants with diverse culinary backgrounds,” suggests Morgan Bedore, vice president of sales and creative development for Starr Restaurants. Armed with such formidable resources, Bedore can provide restaurant-quality experiences for catered off-premises events ranging from suburban dinner parties to massive galas at a Manhattan museum. “To plan an event successfully takes the same amount of time whether it’s for 10 people or a thousand,” she says, pointing out that small events are professionally challenging because every detail is visible to the guests. Bedore’s first step is to have a conversation at a location the client feels comfortable in, assessing his or her tastes and expectations for the event.
Patina Restaurant Group operates about 60 restaurants and food service operations, many inside iconic buildings such as Rockefeller Center in New York or Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. With clients such as the Emmy Awards and L.A. Philharmonic, Patina Catering is accustomed to dealing with a very selective clientele. “Larger events usually are run by committees and we conduct tastings for them,” reports Patina Restaurant Group chef and founder Joachim Splichal (shown at left), noting that he tries to accommodate everybody, which often means overcoming initial disagreements. In addition, an entire team of professionals — including lighting and sound specialists, decorators and even the valet parking manager — are brought together at early planning meetings to ensure seamless coordination from the start.
George Nickels is director of catering and convention services at the hip SLS Hotel outside Beverly Hills, home to celebrity chef José Andrés, who also shows off his molecular gastronomy at restaurants in Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas. Nickels, who insists on customizing every occasion to the client’s particular needs, explains, “We like to get to know our clients on a personal level to uncover their expressed and unexpressed wishes for their events.” Over the years, he has found that holding meetings at clients’ homes is extremely helpful, revealing volumes about their lifestyles and tastes. For his part, Andrés wants to know from hosts how they want their guests to feel, and asks, “What are the unique and exciting things we can do that will leave them all with some amazing memories of the night?”
Selecting the Venue
One of the earliest and most important decisions is where to hold an event, whether a local restaurant, hotel, cultural institution, or even at the host’s own home. Naturally, the venue must suit the stature of the occasion, accommodate the requisite number of guests and reflect the values of the host or sponsoring organization. George Nickels typically arranges affairs at the SLS Hotel’s Philippe Starck-designed event spaces, which include the acclaimed restaurants of Chef Andrés (shown at right). While he never rules out home-based gatherings, Nickels acknowledges the inherent challenges. “An at-home event can be very personal; however the logistics are more challenging than hosting at a venue that’s built for events,” he says.
Nickels cites a myriad of additional considerations associated with holding an event at home: hiring movers for the furniture, renting tables, chairs, linens and tableware, and arranging for valet parking. Jeffrey A. Miller Catering’s Shelley Nohowel conducts a thorough assessment of the residence, as she does for every prospective venue. “We enjoy working in people’s houses, but our walk-through includes a checklist with hundreds of items,” she says. Logistics, Nohowel contends, is a critical consideration second only to budget, and every venue is examined to ensure that proper cooking and prep areas are available, or whether additional appliances need to be transported to the site. “If you don’t have the right infrastructure, you won’t have a good party,” insists Nohowel. “For larger events, it’s imperative to have commercial ovens and burners to be able to produce enough food in a timely manner,” agrees Nickels. Caterers sometimes will decide the home is not the right place for a particular event, but even the most appropriate residences can be demanding venues. “One of the most exciting challenges for an event planner is to create the perception of seamlessness in the home,” claims Starr Restaurants’ Morgan Bedore.
Over the years, Patina Restaurant Group’s Splichal has grown more forgiving about home-based events. “Twenty-five years ago it was very different, but today most residential kitchens are more than adequate, many with Viking or Wolf appliances, and modern kitchens tend to be large,” he says. As a matter of fact, luxury estates in places such as the Hamptons or Beverly Hills often have roomier kitchens than some of America’s finest restaurants. Residential venues don’t concern Wolfgang Puck Catering’s Barbara Brass, either, who will construct an outdoor field kitchen if necessary. “Our talented team can build a kitchen nearly anywhere,” she boasts.
Developing a Menu
Menu planning needs to be addressed at the outset, as it has an enormous impact on staging, table design and, of course, budget. The complexity of the menu is determined not only by budget but by client preferences, dietary restrictions of guests and available cooking equipment. If you decide to have your event catered by a world-class chef, you probably have an appreciation for culinary innovation, but your guests may not. As a result, chefs sometimes feel constrained by dinner parties, where menus tend to be safely middle-of-the-road, but they usually find some way to show off their talents. “If a client expresses that they’re adventurous with food, then we push the envelope,” says Splichal, adding, “Even if they’re conservative, we often offer a surprise course to make the meal feel exceptional.”
With a hint of mischief, Nickels reports that he sometimes attempts to slip in some of José Andrés’ signature avant-garde cooking, even for clients requesting more conservative cuisine. Taking them to dinner at The Bazaar [Andrés’ flagship restaurant at the SLS] often loosens up conservative-minded hosts, according to Nickels, who says, “Their experience at the restaurant makes them realize the amazing culinary experience their guests could have!” Jeffrey A. Miller’s Nohowel explains, “One of the things we try to do is educate our clients… . If they have simple tastes, we want to entice them, not frighten them.” Most chefs, even celebrities, ultimately defer to their customers. “We love to make suggestions, but our client and guest preferences are most important,” claims Wolfgang Puck.