A-List Party Guru Shares Holiday Hosting Secrets
The holiday party is tomorrow. I’m hosting. My friends think I’m nuts.
“Are you sure?” they asked, giving me both a sanity check and a way out. I’d offered to host the dinner party for the book club ladies and their husbands knowing that I would only be in my new house for two weeks before the party.
“We’ll be fine,” I said, waving my hand as if swatting smoke.
That said, at times over the past two weeks, when the inside of my new house resembled the donation drop behind the Goodwill, I had my doubts. But I stuck with my instincts. Have the party!
Last night, with only two days to go, DC asked, his voice wary: “What all do we have to do to get ready?” What he really wanted to know how was how the party prep would impact his stocking-stuffed schedule.
“Not much,” I said. “I am not going to stress about it. These are my friends. They know we just moved in.”
“You don’t know how glad I am to hear you say that,” he said. And just like that, the party pressure dropped like Santa down the chimney.
That was the moment of change. The minute I said, “I am not going to stress about it,” I felt something in me shift. In that instant, after half a century of living, I realized that I just might have figured out the point of life: Less stress more joy.
See, in years past, I would have turned this dinner party into a big fussy to do, obsessed about every detail, and driven everyone I live with bonkers. And what is the upside of that? Plus, if I wait for my house to be “done,” whatever that means, to host a party, I will never have a party.
Lifestyle expert and entertaining guru Susan MacTavish Best, known the world over for her A-list parties, reaffirmed all this when I called her this week to glean a few party tips. MacTavish’s forte is bringing together interesting people of all walks and ages -- a countess, an 80-year-old psych professor, and a geeky twenty-something programmer who can start a successful dot.com but not a conversation – laying out a seemingly effortless but delicious spread, and letting the evening memorably unfold.
(Full disclosure: I am totally envious. I always wanted to be in the mix, known for fabulous soirées, and fascinating and famous friends, a woman who fills her home with well-dressed, shimmering people, who exude fragrant bursts of warm perfume, and clink glasses while sharing profoundly witty dialogue. Alas, the closest I’ll ever come is to interview the woman who throws such parties weekly. And I’m okay with that.)
MacTavish, who is single with no kids, which explains a lot, splits her time between her homes in San Francisco and New York. On the day I caught up with her, she had just touched down in London, where, though jet lagged, she happily chatted with me while waiting for groceries to be delivered for her party that night -- a simple sit down for 10 to 12.
Because I want to make a memorable evening for my friends, who are A-list to me, without killing myself, I asked MacTavish to share her recipe for a successful party:
Forget perfection. “First, get over the fixation that you have to make the party perfect,” said MacTavish. “If you aim for perfection, you will be miserably disappointed, and you’ll annoy everyone along the way. Just toss perfection out the door. It is so tedious.” I’ll drink to that!
Get cocktails and drinks sorted out first. “As long as you have drinks ready as guests arrive, and at least one nibble, the party will start well,” she said. “Serve one cocktail. Bourbon and cider are nice this time of year, plus champagne and wine. People don’t want a lot of choices.”
Keep the food simple. You don’t need a salad course. Appetizers, a main course, and dessert will do. Fancy chocolates can be enough for dessert.
Say YES, if guests ask to bring something, and be very specific. Say, “Yes, please bring three different cheeses and some olives.’”
Choose forgiving recipes. Dinner parties are not the time to cook dishes that require precise timing. Choose dishes you can make ahead that can sit in the oven without getting overdone, or can be served at room temperature.
Write down the menu. Don’t leave your guests guessing. When lights are low, ratatouille can look like the dog’s dinner. Have a chalkboard menu so guests know what’s being served, or label each dish with a small card.
Don’t apologize. No one wants to hear that you’re sorry the chicken is too dry, or the meat is tough, or the vegetables are too salty. Just roll with it. “Your guests aren’t noticing after a glass of wine, and no one is coming for the food.”
Turn off the overhead lights. “They are so unkind,” she says. Let lamps, sconces, candles, and sparkling conversation illuminate the party.
Don’t let not being a cook stop you. Get some nice take-out food, but transfer it from the box to a pretty platter. Pretty platters and cloth napkins elevate everything.
Have a ready-to-go appetizer. Keep pantry provisions on hand for impromptu guests, so you can quickly set out a wooden board with crackers, olives, salami, pesto spread, and cheese.
Don’t overlook daytime events. Consider having an open house on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, or a “recovery party” on New Year’s Day. The conversations can be better, and friends won’t likely be dividing their time among other parties.
My new philosophy: Care less. Entertain more. You only get now once.
CAPTION: What’s for dinner? A chalkboard menu won’t leave your guests guessing. Photo courtesy of Gene X Hwang/Orange Photography