While you may have mastered the art of preparing dinner for your immediate family, have you learned the secrets to entertaining a crowd of partygoers at home? Shopping and cooking for, as well as serving, a meal at a big-bash party invites questions and challenges that you may not face when planning everyday eats and drinks: What are some go-to dishes that will please a diverse group of guests? How much food is needed to feed everyone? What’s the best way to serve multiple courses?
No one can answer these questions better than restaurant chefs, those who’ve made a career out of cooking for large groups of people and who know the ins and outs of preparing to host a crowd. Elizabeth Karmel, owner and executive chef of Hill Country, Elizabeth Falkner, owner and executive chef at Krescendo and a two-time competitor on The Next Iron Chef, and Hedy Goldsmith, executive pastry chef at Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in Miami, Fla., showed off their exemplary party-throwing skills in New York City last weekend at the fifth annual Sunday Supper at Chelsea Market, supporting the James Beard Foundation‘s Scholarship for Fulton Youth of the Future and Wellness in the Schools. Together with more than a dozen of their chef colleagues, these ladies cooked a six-course feast for nearly 300 people that included such deliciously inspired bites as caponata with creamy burrata, pasta with sweet onions, tender jumbo prawns and pear crostata.
FN Dish was on hand not only to see the orchestra that’s needed to successfully pull off an event of that magnitude but also to find out from Chefs Karmel, Falkner and Goldsmith how home cooks can utilize similar tricks and techniques when entertaining on a smaller scale.
When it comes to hosting any dinner party, simplicity is key, both in terms of cooking and in dishing out the meal, which is why the chefs agreed family-style dining is a must. “It reminds me of eating at home,” Chef Goldsmith told us of the practice, which was the dining style of choice at Sunday Supper. If you’re inviting multiple groups of friends that may not know each other, look to passed platters of shared food to break the ice between them and initiate conversation, just as they did with the varied crowd seated around nearly 400 feet of tables at Chelsea Market. Plus, “Everybody gets to have what they want,” Chef Falkner noted, explaining that family-style dining allows guests to help themselves to exactly how much of a dish they’d like.
Chef Karmel offered plates of Texas-style fried chicken at the event, a now-signature meal at her restaurants and one that she’d cook for company at home. It’s important to her to stay true to her food, and she believes that, when entertaining, hosts should “cook food that they love” and look forward to eating, “because when you cook something that you want to eat, you’re going to put more passion in it and be more careful with how you’re preparing it,” she said. “Buy the best-quality ingredients and don’t do very much to them. Just let the ingredients shine.”
While it’s important to serve food that you, the host, are familiar with, it’s also best to find out what’s appealing to your guests. “Who’s coming over? How old are they? What are they like?” Chef Karmel asked. These are questions to consider when deciding not to cook meatloaf for vegetarians and to offer a basic pasta if your guest list includes kids.
No matter who you’re cooking for, Chef Karmel recommends opting for simple, make-ahead dishes if at all possible. “I think that people, when they design their menu, should make food that you can prepare in advance and just reheat,” she said. “If you do do something a la minute [prepared to order], you only do one thing that’s a la minute. And the reason for that is because you want to have fun at your party too, right?” It’s no fun trying to juggle the intricacies of an elaborate dish while being surrounded by the craziness of a rowdy party, so look to hands-off recipes that will keep when made several hours before company arrives.
(Photos courtesy of Max Flatow Photography and Geoff Mottram, courtesy of James Beard Foundation)