Amy's 10 Secrets to a Perfect Party
Along with the comfort and joy of the holidays, comes a lot of drama and stress. Throwing a fabulous party is a great way to impress family and friends, but there are many factors that can derail even the best-laid plans.
We have arranged everything from intimate meals for couples to six-course bacon-infused dinner parties to cocktail parties for 400. We've also encountered practically every catering calamity, including a recent dinner party for 80 with no kitchen in sight (we made do with a propane stove and camping light).
Here are my top 10 catering tips for throwing the perfect party:
1. Don’t Succumb to Culinary Peer Pressure
Don't make exotic food just for the sake of it. If you're throwing a party yourself, be sure to try out your recipe before the event and make sure you're not going to be spending the whole party slaving in the kitchen, instead of enjoying your friends and family.
2. They Call it a “Backup Plan” for a Reason
Have items you can put out when there’s a hitch in the giddyup. When I was making fresh ravioli for 80 people on a propane stove, I ended up putting out the blue-cheese bread that I had originally intended to serve with the entrée.
3. Shopping 101
For one party, I can make as many as 10 shopping trips. Trader Joe’s, Costco, Ralph’s, and Surfas are frequent stops for me. Whole Foods can be pretty expensive, but I’ll go if I need some sort of special ingredient.
People today are very budget conscious, but you can find great deals if you know where to look: Trader Joe’s has these great little mini-heirloom tomatoes in different colors that work well for salads or bruschetta. Costco ahs some pretty amazing cheeses and often has a good selection of produce.
4. Appetizing Appetizers
Plan to make about 2-3 pieces of each appetizer per person. If it’s a dinner party for 10, you’ll want to prepare three different appetizers. In general, people like cheesy, crunchy, crispy, and sweet. Have something fried and something cheesy—there should be a vegetarian item in there—and avoid polarizing items (like squid!).
5. Avoid Scheduling Snafus
After the appetizers, plan for a salad, or some kind of starter (like a soup or crabcakes), a main course, a side dish, and dessert. Give people 45 minutes to an hour for the appetizers—30 minutes is too short because most people arrive late. Dinner should be about an hour to an hour and a half. And remember, once you put out dessert, people will start to leave.
6. Keep it Simple, Seriously
Some things are hard to cook well, especially when you’re dealing with time constraints and large quantities. Stick with things that are more forgiving: braised short ribs are easy to make even though they tend to be expensive in restaurants; if you’re nervous about cooking while your guests are around, make something ahead of time, like lasagna or cannelloni.
There are definitely things that scare me, like lobster—the thought of taking a live lobster and putting it into a pot is revolting to me, but that’s why there’s a man at the market with a butcher knife and a hot pot who will do that for you. Desserts can be made ahead of time like a fresh berry cobbler or chocolate croissant bread pudding.
7. Presentation Makes the Party
Make each dish your own. If you’re making little tartlets, use a square cup instead of a round one. Or if you’re buying frozen mini-quiches, add a little dollop of sour cream with dill.
And here’s a little trick for people who are jamming to get their parties set up in time: take a handful of berries and place it in a little pile on the corner of the platter. Even if you’re serving cocktail hot dogs, it elevates the elegance.
8. Tippling Tips
Plan for two to three glasses of wine per person. If you’re on a budget, rent smaller glasses and you can get five glasses out of a bottle. For parties of more than 25 people, a bartender can be very helpful, especially if you have the bartender pour the wine instead of having guests over-pour for themselves. Also, avoid having to stock a full bar and planning for every drink possible by creating and preparing a signature cocktail for your party, and then supplement that with wine, beer and soda.
9. Take Time to Take Stock
If you have an annual party, set aside some time at the end to take stock. Are there a lot of cheese doodles left over? Is the gin gone, but the vodka bottles are still full? Hosts tend to do panic buying at the last minute, which results in a lot of leftovers. A few minutes of reflection can help you plan better for next year.
10. Worth the Dough
For larger parties, hire a dishwasher. It’s about $100 and it’s worth every penny! Also, get a server to help with the set up and cleanup. Most staffing companies will charge $25 per hour per person wth a 5 hour minimum. Note that staff costs are double on holidays.