How do real grownups host small professional-ish dinner parties?
January 30, 2013 5:18 AM   Subscribe

So a little while ago I invited my supervisor over for dinner with his partner at my little studio in a couple of weeks and it just occurred to me, I've never actually done this kind of thing before and I'm not entirely sure I know how.

I am a graduate student with a charming 33m2 (~355ft2) one room one bathroom studio that has a little kitchenette and a nice sized dinning room table in it. I'll have my partner with me to help though they are about as young and clueless as I am. I get that it should be not so different from just having friends over, but what are some things that I won't necessarily think of?

  • How long does, at least the traditional, dinner with boss thing last?
  • I imagine that the food itself should be more or less prepared with at least minimal further fussing necessary by the time guests arrive, but roughly how long should it be before dinner is served?
  • Can you think of some uniquely American dishes that do not require uniquely American ingredients and can be prepared on two stove tops and no oven? I'm already making proper sweet tea with a simple sugar of lemon zest and Amish potato salad ahead of time
  • I love checklists.
    posted by Blasdelb to Human Relations (27 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
    Braised BBQ ribs or southern fried chicken would probably appeal to Belgian palates while being something American they may not have had home-cooked before, and that you'd be able to find the ingredients for at the local market. (You'd probably need to make your own rub and sauce if you went with the ribs, but that's easy.)
    posted by Slap*Happy at 5:34 AM on January 30, 2013

    The most important rule of hosting your boss at your home is ... only prepare food that cannot fail.

    Just make things you've made a hundred times before and really like, but with better ingredients than usual. Take no chances. If you want to splurge on anything fancy, make it alcohol and/or a dessert selection from a really nice bakery (keeping in mind your guests may bring a bottle). Also, don't make anything that requires particularly fine timing. You want easy food that tastes good.

    You need to be comfortable and at ease as a host, not fussing in the kitchen and not worried about failure.

    You probably already know that but maybe hearing it from someone else is good!

    Now if it was me, I would probably do either a braise or a slow-cooked chili if you wanted something really rich and flavourful, which might match the potato salad and sweet tea quite nicely.
    posted by seanmpuckett at 5:35 AM on January 30, 2013 [13 favorites]

    The answer to your first question is really "whatever the mood supports." If things are going well, let it run long. If conversation is drying up, move it along. I don't know how many courses you're running, or even if you're running courses, but I'd generally try to have the actual eating part last about an hour to an hour and a half. After that, clear the table, start uncorking some wine, and see where it goes. Run out of bottles if you're done for the night but your guests aren't excusing themselves.

    Dinner, though, should generally be timed so your guests can finish an initial libation before things get started.

    Traditional American dishes? I'd look to Southern cooking as the source of traditional Americana. One thing I will say, though, is that if your guest is from a different food culture, traditional Americana is going to be extremely heavy and oversized for their eating habits. You may want to pare it down into what would be a tasting or light portion here, especially if there will be a variety.
    posted by bfranklin at 5:36 AM on January 30, 2013

    1) It depends on the people and the day of the week, what the purpose of the evening is and how much booze there is. There is no strict guide, but unless everyone is giving off party vibes then 10.30-11pm. If it's a weekend, then people may be inclined to stay longer.

    2) Absolutely prepare in advance. I went years doing dinner parties where I cooked some or all of it there and then and you just spend your time in the kitchen when you should be talking to your friends/guests etc. If you're doing 3 courses, a good rule of thumb is 45 mins drinks at a minimum. Why? Because people can, and do turn up half an hour late. Then if you do a starter think of that as 20 minutes, main course 30 minutes, dessert 20 minutes, coffee and drinks after fill the rest of the time. So, assuming a 7.30 guest arrival, that's sitting down to eat at 8.15 and finishing dessert at 9.25 or so. Ideally, serve a cold/easy-to prepare-dessert so you can shift the timings back if needs be. The same for starters.

    3) I don't know any uniquely American dishes, but I would recommend a casserole/stew/hotpot of some sort so you just heat it up when you're ready. The key here is not having to fret about something burning or overcooking. A good chilli, made with proper beef, would be an example. Note: linked recipe serves 15, so halve the quantities or so.
    posted by MuffinMan at 5:38 AM on January 30, 2013

    Make sure you have enough chairs.

    Check on dietary restrictions ahead of time.

    Dinner shouldn't be ready when they get there, as they could run late and then they'd feel bad if the food is cold/ruined. I usually plan on 15-20 minutes after expected arrival.

    Have some munchies ready when they arrive. They can be store-bought or homemade, casual or fancy -- it doesn't really matter. It just somehow makes the sitting around and waiting for dinner less awkward, particularly if the cooking runs long. For some reason, people like to chat with food and drinks in their hands.

    Don't worry about how long dinner will last -- that will take care of itself.
    posted by cranberry_nut at 5:39 AM on January 30, 2013

    I don't know if Flanders sensibilities are similar to French ones or not, but it might be worth asking around. French people are VERY used to a set order of how things will appear on the table. In the USA I would plop down a salad bowl, and whatever the main meal was and start passing things around the table. French people prefer distinct courses. If you are serving American food, this might help a person feel more at ease (ok, that was the salad course, so it's the main, etc).

    This is certainly not a hard and fast rule, but it might be something to consider.
    posted by raccoon409 at 5:41 AM on January 30, 2013

    For clarification,
  • This is on a Saturday
  • There is no special purpose for it other than being a social thing.
  • I have a decent selection of wine and Belgian beer and I have a similar taste in beer to my supervisor.
  • I can't believe I hadn't thought of chili. I have an ancestral recipe from ranchers on my mother's side, real deal Chugwater chili powder from the source, and a spare pot for the inevitable blivot.
  • posted by Blasdelb at 5:48 AM on January 30, 2013

    Your supervisor is not your friend, nor vice versa, however this does not mean you all can not be friendly. Drink in moderation regardless of his/her drinking, personal information your supervisor might reveal stays at the party and have a good time. Avoid dishes that take a lot of last minute preparation, keep it simple and stress quality ingredients. Better to end early than drag out from a sense of imagined responsibility. I have a strong hunch it will go smoothly.
    posted by rmhsinc at 5:48 AM on January 30, 2013

    I will chime in only to make a dessert suggestion: Poached Pears. They are beautiful and simple and can be made ahead, even the day before. You just take them out of the fridge about 15 minutes before serving them. There are plenty of good recipes on the web.
    posted by Dolley at 5:51 AM on January 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

    A glass of wine or champagne before dinner. (Or beer.)

    An appropriate bottle of wine with dinner, with a glass of water on the side. Or again beer if that's what you're drinking.

    Wait until everyone is served before beginning to eat. As the host you most offer "bon appetite" or "eet smakelijk" followed by a brief toast. (Everyone will sit looking stupidly at you if you don't and it's very rude to just start eating.)

    Make sure the wine/beer glasses and the water glass remain filled. This is your responsibility as host.

    A desert wine and some cheese for after dinner and COFFEE is a must, preferably espresso. Again you must offer this as it is expected. Dessert and coffee is the most important thing.

    Do not rush, don't clear the final plate until after your guest leaves.

    In Flanders expect your guest to bring cut flowers.

    That's it. Have fun.
    posted by three blind mice at 5:58 AM on January 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

    "I imagine that the food itself should be more or less prepared with at least minimal further fussing necessary by the time guests arrive, but roughly how long should it be before dinner is served?"

    I usually shoot for half an hour to an hour. (I also usually tell people what time we expect to eat -- "We'll see you at six and probably eat around 7!" -- but I'm in the phase where people have little kids so sometimes disasters that impact their timing.) Of course drinks and usually some sort of light appetizer while you wait ... cheese and crackers is always easy.

    If you can make something that cooks on its own with little supervision for that last hour, that's ideal; in cold weather, I often do something in the crockpot with some homemade bread so I just have to serve it up with some fresh hot bread when it's time to eat. In the alternative, something you are excellent at making that takes >15 minutes of prep and you can either talk while doing it or your partner feels comfortable carrying the conversation. I do a pasta primavera in the summer, do all the cutting up in advance, so I'm just basically cooking the pasta and then making the sauce when people have arrived, and I've done it enough that I can chat with a guest in my kitchen while I do it.

    If it's going to be extra-complicated and require you to have a lot of time in the kitchen, either your partner needs to do the cooking, or your partner needs to be the world's most charming person who can carry the conversation the whole time you're busy :)
    posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:42 AM on January 30, 2013

    Chili seems a little too casual for a dinner party for some reason (at least, one with a boss). If you're limited to a stovetop....maybe some kind of pan-fried fish, as a nod to the fried fish dishes of New Orleans? Brabant potatoes is a simple side dish that could go with that, and if you simply add a green salad you're done.

    Or if you still want to go with something more stew-ish, jambalaya may also be an option. The most difficult-to-find ingredient in Belgium, the andouille sausage, can be replaced by kielbasa or any other smoked sausage in a pinch; everything else should be obtainable (celery, onion, bell pepper, rice, chicken stock, canned tomatoes). That and a simple salad and some crusty bread would be lovely.

    I personally check with all new dinner guests to see if they have any food allergies before I plan meals, but unless you start thinking of maybe doing shellfish or something that he could be allergic to, don't sweat it.
    posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:47 AM on January 30, 2013

    I've done King Ranch Chicken without an American supermarket, and just a large toaster oven. One must cut corners on the Rotel and play fast & loose with cheeses, cook the cheese first, etc, but it's POSSIBLE. Macaroni & cheese can be done in a pot, for sure. For the chili or the King Ranch Chicken: Cornbread! Ain't nothing wrong with that." (I don't know if you're from a family with a particular recipe, but if not here's a stovetop version.)

    Napkins, placemats, and candles go a long way, even if they're cheap ones. (Tealights in thrift store drinkware, for example.) Also, via a stereo or TV setup or even a glorified laptop will work, put on some music, nothing too polarizing or loud. Do you know if your supervisor+partner prefer carbonated water to still? Prepare accordingly with some Spa Rood and Blauw. Worst case scenario, you rehydrate after they leave.

    Consider divvying up responsibilities between Blaspartner and yourself, so that you're not both scurrying around like Keystone Kops.

    Remember: your supervisor was once a PhD student too. :)

    And, because nobody's said anything except for kitcheny stuff, but at the risk of insulting you & Partner, here are some things for the checklist:
    -Clean the bathroom
    -Freshen the towel in there
    -Check soap levels
    -Check paper levels
    -Light a candle in there
    -Have sufficient hangers or a place to put coats... and decide how you feel about shoes (on or off) in the home!
    -Relax :)
    posted by knile at 6:51 AM on January 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

    I'm 30 and my fiance and I have dinner guests/dinner parties fairly often and people are always very happy and always look forward to coming back. (I'm in Canada, in case it matters.)

    - When doing pre-dinner cleaning, pay attention to CORNERS of the room. And the wall around lightswitches. And baseboards. And your bathroom sink. And the floor around/behind the toilet (because men really see that when they are peeing)
    - have music on at all times, but on low.
    - We usually offer our guests a drink (wine, beer, scotch, coffee, etc) when they arrive. Best if you know the types of things they enjoy so you can have it on hand (sounds like you're good there)
    - sit and chat for ~30 minutes when they first arrive (good idea to think of some discussion topics beforehand. Awkard silences suck.)
    - While final dinner preparations are being done, always leave at least one person with the guests. It isn't terribly nice to have both hosts in the kitchen cooking, leaving the guests off on their own, even if the kitchen and livingroom are adjacent. If possible it is nice for the kitchen person to try to occasionally comment or pop in to the conversation, as long as they are close enough to be listening and not have to yell to be heard.
    - serve guests their plates first, women before men
    - don't eat until everyone has their food.
    - as a host we are always clear to tell guests to go ahead and eat. Some people wait until the host says to go ahead.
    - always have water glasses on the table in addition to the wine/whatever they had been drinking
    - it is your job as host to pay attention to people's glasses. I was always taught to never pour my own wine at a dinner party. It is up to the host to offer it to you and pour it for you. (this may be a local thing, I don't know)
    - Offer your guest the wine before you finish the bottle off in your own glass.
    - clear plates after everyone is done with dinner. You don't need to wash them right then, but at least have them stacked in a tidy fashion in the kitchen if they are able to see in to your kitchen.
    - we usually have a sitdown livingroom chat after the main meal for a while. Come back to the table later for dessert.
    - chat for a while longer after dessert (at the table or couch, wherever seems natural at the time), with the offer of tea/coffee.
    - OPTIONAL : we always play a boardgame of some sort at the end of every dinner party. Nothing crazy or that lasts longer than 45 minutes.

    EmpresssCallipygos said, chili, while delicious, strikes me as really informal food. I don't know how formal a dinner you're going for, but I know for me that would be little too far on the casual end of things. If I were you I would at least find some way of making the presentation a little fancier. Or serve something else that you have tried at least once before and feel confident you can pull off well.

    We usually serve stuff like:
    - panfried haddock (super easy) with a super easy home made lemon dill sauce, with wilted spinach (super easy) on the side
    - Bacon wrapped beef tenderloin with a spinach and arugula salad with home made dressing (super easy).
    - baked chicken parmesan (super easy) with a spinach and arugula salad with home made dressing (super easy)
    - chicken curry (super easy) with rice and naan and a home made yoghurt-cucumber sauce.
    posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 6:59 AM on January 30, 2013 [7 favorites]

    If you want the chili to seem less casual, don't use mince/ground hamburger meat; use meat for stew cut into smallish pieces. If it's a very spicy recipe do something to mellow it out, like adding red wine. I think chili is a great idea.
    posted by BibiRose at 7:03 AM on January 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

    If you want the chili to seem less casual, don't use mince/ground hamburger meat; use meat for stew cut into smallish pieces.
    Or study up on your Flemish for the Belgian cuts of beef (here are the Dutch cuts, vs American). and make short rib chili.
    posted by knile at 7:15 AM on January 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

    If it's a very spicy recipe

    If it is, unless you're 100% for certain sure that your guests looooove spicy food, cut the heat by half. Then half again. You can simmer some peppers or whatever separately in another pot with a bit of the chili to make some a powershot of superhot chili to mix in if they should so desire.

    I can't tell you how many times I have seen otherwise great meals completely ruined for someone because they can't tolerate the spicy food.

    chili, while delicious, strikes me as really informal food

    True. The way you fancy it up is in presentation. Serve in a nice bowl with a nice plate underneath. Put a dollop of sour cream or yogurt in the middle, with a small sprinkling of green onions or sweet corn or avocado or fresh herbs (choose two), NO CHEESE, and a slice of toasted crusty bread on the side.
    posted by phunniemee at 7:18 AM on January 30, 2013 [8 favorites]

    I like the chili idea, paired with something like stovetop cornbread, especially if it's something you do well/has a story to go with it.
    Have some snack set out when they walk in, chips, stuff like that. I'd also maybe do something like this. Easy, can be prepared ahead of time, looks fancy. Cava is the standard pre-dinner drink here, but I'd have some other options ready. If it's a nice day like today, maybe Ricard?
    For dessert I would do a fruit tart from a bakery, nothing too heavy. Or perhaps a chocolate mousse, served in nice glasses. And maybe browse the cheese aisle at Delhaize and pick a few that look interesting, along with a dark bread. If you're both into beer, it would be nice to have a heavier/dessert beer to go the cheese/coffee something like Chimay, perhaps?
    posted by Karmeliet at 7:25 AM on January 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

    In Flanders expect your guest to bring cut flowers.

    Indeed. Make sure you have a vase or something to hand or there'll be that awkward "thanks for the flowers, now wtf do I do with them" situation.
    posted by atrazine at 7:38 AM on January 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

    The kind of informality that really is chili I think is fine, where when I was at a dinner party at his house with with his brother and partner they served a pasta casserole (that was pretty tasty). Really its more cluefull than formal that I'm shooting for here.
    posted by Blasdelb at 7:41 AM on January 30, 2013

    Two more things:

    1. Once your menu is set, think about exactly which dishes you'll be using to serve every single item on the menu. Remember to include the little things like a saucer for lemons, a bread basket, a butter dish, a cream pitcher, etc. Get them out ahead of time and have them ready. That way you won't need to fumble through the cupboards while your guests are there.

    2. Plan your table setting ahead of time, including plates and bowls if you decide on the chili. The table doesn't have to be fancy, but you should put a little thought into making it pretty by using color-coordinated napkins, simple flowers, candles, etc.
    posted by MelissaSimon at 8:09 AM on January 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

    Serve coffee and tea after dinner and maybe an after-dinner drink, and plan a low-key activity - listening to a new piece of music, playing a board/ card game, or have a few discussion topics ready. If they overstay their welcome, your partner can start some discreet tidying up. One tip for any dinner party guest - better to leave and be missed than stay too late.
    posted by theora55 at 10:22 AM on January 30, 2013

    In many places it's not done to serve drinks without some sort of food offered, so with pre-dinner cocktails you might want to set out some olives and nuts, possibly a very simple crudité tray – just some light things that won't spoil appetites.

    I make gumbo for an "American" food treat for people here in Greece (I describe it here, but you don't actually need either okra or file), but this is something you should practice for yourselves in advance, not something to make for the first time for a dinner party. Good bread and a simple green salad is all you need to go with this. And while we're on the New Orleans trip, Bananas Foster is a single burner elegant dessert that would go beautifully with a Creole meal.

    Now, just one tip that may or may not be helpful for future cooking adventures since you don't have an oven: I got this slow cooker last summer, and we use it all the time (I love it because it doesn't take up a lot of space, and I can brown things in the slow cooker itself). Tonight, for instance, we're having slow cooked pork roast (saute a bit of chopped onion and green pepper in some olive oil in the cooker, cut tiny "pockets" in the meat and insert slivers of garlic before putting it in the slow cooker, add a very small bit of water or wine, let it cook for 4-6 hours) with confetti couscous (make the couscous – which is extremely simple; for our brand you just add equal parts boiling water and couscous stir and let sit for a few minutes – chop up some carrot, green and red pepper, green onion, and zucchini into small bits, toss into the coucous with some optional raisins, olive oil, the juice of an orange or half an orange, salt and pepper, mix it up) and green salad. This is nice enough for a dinner party, ridiculously simple, and possibly American. I'm American, and I say yeah.

    Also something you might enjoy: the late, wonderful Laurie Colwin's memoir-slash-recipe books "Home Cooking" and "More Home Cooking" are quite nice and very fun to read for casual cooks in small spaces without all the expensive kitchen paraphernalia. Many of the recipes/ideas are from when she lived in a tiny NYC flat with only a mini-fridge and a hot plate. Highly recommended for comfort reading, and many of my favorite recipes are from these books; they always make me feel cozy, happy and relaxed about cooking, and, in fact, I just made her gingerbread last night (does require an oven).
    posted by taz at 10:23 AM on January 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

    American salad: If you've got a good clear-glass high-sided bowl, you should make a 7-layer salad. It's traditionally assembled in advance and brought out at family reunions and church suppers.
    You can tailor the ingredients to the available produce, your personal taste, and the probable preferences of the country you're in. Most include lettuce, peas, carrots, shredded cheese; possibly tomato, broccoli, or cucumber; also way too much dressing for the European palate; also some assortment of "goodies", olives, boiled eggs, avocado, ham/bacon.
    posted by aimedwander at 10:27 AM on January 30, 2013

    Having just run a kitchen for a dinner party for 24, for my boss and HIS boss, I'd like to second all of the excellent advice you've gotten here. So here's something you may have missed:

    Mise en place

    Get all of your stuff ready to go. You don't want to be frantically chopping, measuring, digging around for that spice you swore you had - have everything lined up and prepped BEFORE you start cooking. Especially if you're doing a dinner with a defined time - i.e. the roast comes out at 545, rests for 30 mins, gets cut and then served at 630. You don't want to push any part of the timeline, so have it all set!

    I assume you have an open kitchen instead of a galley/closed kitchen, so you can get away with a little prep while you talk (and if your supervisor is someone who likes getting into the details of food, he may want to see you work). Keep you during-hosting work to a minimum - a stir, a slice, a garnish. Again, prep prep prep.

    Place settings, linens/tablecloth, a choice of beverages. A dessert, probably from that nice place around the corner to take your mind off having to make it.
    posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:39 PM on January 30, 2013

    We throw dinner parties all the time. All good suggestions above. One thing my wife did last Saturday which went over well......A pitcher filled with ice water that never ran out through the course of the night.

    I will say this, I actually like to cook a bit when my guest arrive. When I show up and everything is magically pulled out of thin air, it seems a bit contrived. I feel more at ease when someone can talk, have a drink, and sauté at the same time. It also lets you not have to put 100% focus on your guests which lets everyone ease into the evening with a drink and good smells in the air.
    posted by jasondigitized at 5:54 PM on January 30, 2013

    I hosted the dinner party a bit late as each of our partners were sick on the appointed day and we rescheduled, but it turned out great! Smakelijk was said at the appropriate time, the chili turned out delicious, I made hors d'oeuvres from fancy Russian caviar I got from an international conference, and a good time was had by all.
    posted by Blasdelb at 1:47 PM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

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