Monday, September 2, 2013

On Hosting

One of the benefits of traveling and visiting friends from time to time that live a good distance away is being invited out for lunches and dinners. Everyone has his or her own style of entertaining. Given my profession, I notice a lot of the fine points of what hosts do to make a party a success. Some hosts have a natural ability to make their guests feel welcome, while others do not. For instance, guests do not want to stand around holding their coat, hostess gift or bottle of wine while the host is otherwise engaged, seemingly unaware of the latest arrival? 

It amazes me how often guests are simply ignored or are allowed to stand awkwardly by without being acknowledged. This occurs not only in private homes but in restaurants as well. By following a few simple guidelines our guests will feel more than welcome; they will feel special!

A mentor of mine with a lifetime of experience as a host to all kinds of people reminds us to “avoid the avoidable”. We can accomplish this most easily by making a plan ahead of time and sticking to it. This plan works most effectively and efficiently if it follows a time line. Begin with issuing invitations and conclude with serving after dinner coffee. Considerations include deciding how many guests to invite, what the menu will be, and what the tone of the party will be. We all have our priorities and different styles of entertaining. I have always been a proponent of flexibility and fun and do not believe that there is a clear-cut black and white way to do anything. Only in the most formal situations does strict protocol come into play.

Conventional wisdom or common sense might dictate deciding on the guest list, followed by the menu, the various table wears and finally the flowers or other centerpiece, all in that order. I find choosing the flowers first or the menu first can help set the tone for the party and may well influence the guest list. An example might be a lobster boil or a mussel feast. Inviting people who are allergic to shellfish could be problematic. Cooking two menus – one for those who will enjoy the lobster, and one for those who wouldn’t, can be hectic at best. If you enjoy hosting parties then by all means have several and your food allergy problems will be blissfully solved.

Most of us have rather impromptu dinners with invitations delivered by a phone call or even an email. Being a traditionalist, I am not likely to issue invitations (not invites, by the way) via email, but this seems to be a growing trend, and for informal gatherings I say, “Why not”? For more formal gatherings, handwritten invitations are proper, but amongst close friends the trend towards phoning is gaining ground. I draw the line with text messaging and social media being off limits and just plain lazy. Given the amount of effort one puts into planning, preparing and hosting a party, the time required to send an invitation is minimal and it gives real style to any event. My advice is to go the extra mile. Your guests will notice the effort!

If you are cooking the meal at home, resist trying a recipe you haven’t tested before. Not all recipes actually work, especially if your culinary skills are a bit rusty. Plan a menu that can be prepared ahead of time, with perhaps a bit of a warm up or last-minute carving, if at all possible. This allows a host to be gracious and focus more attention on guests.

Be ready to greet your guests when they arrive. Let them know where they hang their coats, leave their shoes (if you have a shoes-off policy), and offer them a beverage. This of course means having a bar set up complete with ice and glasses. Many parties in the Maritimes are BYOB affairs; some are not. With the decline in the consumption of hard liquor and an increase in beer and wine, be sure to have a designated area where beverages can be kept cold.

As the afternoon or evening progresses, keep an eye on each of your guests, making an effort to have a meaningful conversation with each one. If you are seating the dinner party at a table or group of tables, place cards do come in handy. They are not pretentious and actually help guests. This also allows you to control where people sit, being sure that husbands and wives to not sit next to one another, but that dating couples do. Small children should be seated next to or very near their parents.

Try to position yourself near the door as the party comes to an end to make it easier for guests to thank you properly. Keep in mind when saying good night not to engage in lengthy conversations and hold other guests up who are trying to leave at the same time. Let common sense and awareness prevail.

These guidelines should help to maximize your guests’ enjoyment and make you look like a star!