With the holidays in full swing, D.C. residents are ready to party, safely of course. When it comes to party planning, however, I think it’s safe to say that generally, it’s a lost art for the newer generations. Messy kitchens, food still in the oven when guests arrive, kids running wild…it can often feel more stressful than enjoyable to have friends or family over. So, we talked with President Chappall Gage and Michelin-starred Chef Adam Howard of Susan Gage Catering to get a few tips to make your holiday events run smoothly for both you and your guests.
1. Organize your menu and your method.
Gage suggests writing down your menu, and figuring out what exact bowls, measuring cups and serving utensils you’ll need as you prepare your food. If you can prepare your food in the same dish you’ll use to serve it in, even better. This way, you eliminate the time you might have spent washing and rewashing different pots and pans. Using parchment paper or foil also saves you from washing sheet pans over and over.
“Really think about your menu,” Gage says. “A lot of people end up having too much.”
Gage recommends one or two proteins, a green salad, a starch, some sort of cooked vegetable and some sort of fresh vegetable.
“If you think about things that way, you can have a more efficient menu,” Gage says. “And also, in that same kitchen plan, you can think about what needs to be cooked when.”
2. Prepare your food in advance.
If you work off the simple menu Gage provided, you can plan to work on different dishes days before your event. Potatoes, for instance, can be made one or two days in advance, and then refrigerated until a couple of hours before guests arrive.
“Serving stuff at room temperature is fine,” Howard says. “Have a nice, warm sauce for it.”
Howard recommends going big — as in size — when it comes to the food. Buy ingredients fresh from the markets, and roast seasonal veggies a day before or a few hours before your event: right now, you can roast a squash, grill some apples, a head of cauliflower, or rainbow chard with the right seasoning, then chop it in big chunks, and set it out on a platter. The more color, the better.
“Do it the day before and give yourself some time,” Howard says. “Enjoy the process of cooking it, as a separate event to the actual hosting. If you botch it, then you have the chance to fix it or do something else.”
Gage’s go-to is a roast prime rib using the low and slow method. If you buy the meat straight from the butcher, they can clean it for you. Then the day of the event, you season the meat, and then put it in the oven at 200 degrees for five or six hours. When it comes out, throw it on the broiler for about five minutes and warm up the other pre-prepared dishes in the already heated oven.
“The advantage to doing this ahead of time,” Gage says, “is that you’re spending this time with your guests.”
For elite host status, pre-batch a cocktail that guests can pick up right as they arrive. It also gives guests something festive to enjoy while you finish up any loose ends in the kitchen — if there are any loose ends after all this advice, that is.
3. Decor can be simple, too.
If you’re the type who loves a theme, Gage suggests planning ahead with trips to Target, Etsy or Amazon. Even Target’s dollar section provides myriad ideas for decorations. Fresh flowers are always welcome. But you can get by without these accessories, too, if you’re down to the wire.
“In a pinch,” Gage says, “if you can get a bowl with some fruits, especially citrus, it’s a really bright pop of color you can put right in the middle of the table that people love.”
Gage also suggests simplifying the finger food menu: “Nuts, bread, butter, olive oil, olives…it fills the table and also gives people something to snack on.”
Howard agrees with this approach, but also recommends a buffet-style setup, as it’s much more fun than being stuck in a seat.
“Set the table, get some wine glasses, have everything there,” Howard says. “Do a pitcher of water with some cucumber, some lemon, have some wine, get a decanter, tablecloth…just get some ideas. The internet is a great resource.”
And don’t forget the music. No one wants to hear their neighbor chewing, even for a brief second of silence.
“It’s great to wow people,” Howard says, “but simplicity is what does it.”
4. Ask guests to contribute.
You don’t have to go full potluck, but it’s not against the rules to ask a friend to bring that special salad they love making, sourdough bread they spent the pandemic perfecting, or wine they keep raving about from their recent visit to a local winery.
Along with food, the clean-up can be spread out too. Gage has a tradition of a clean-up lottery with his family; they write down all the chores that need to be done, and they pick a specific job out of a bowl before the party, so they know what their job will be once the party is over. Depending on your relationship with your guests, this can be another way they can help the event run smoothly.
5. Don’t forget the kids.
If your guests have children, Gage warns: “A bored child is a destructive child.”
He recommends visiting a kid’s store and asking employees for activities that can keep the children busy while the adults socialize. If nothing else, putting on a movie usually does the trick.
“Your friends and family will be that much more appreciative if you have that stuff ready,” Gage says. “The last thing they want to do is go to your house and babysit their own kids.”
6. Enjoy yourself.
Over and over, Gage and Howard reiterated that planning ahead means you get to enjoy yourself just as much as your guests enjoy themselves. Understanding simplicity is the best philosophy will allow you to relax in many ways: less clean-up, less work, and fewer frills. In the end, guests want to be together for the company — all the rest is icing on your pre-prepared cake.
For an even simpler event, Gage provided us with a Winter Mojito recipe to get you started. Check it out below:
2.5 oz Goslings Dark Rum
1 oz Drunken Cranberry Syrup (recipe below)
1 oz Lime Juice
2 Tbsp Drunken cranberries
Combine rum, syrup, and lime juice in a shaker with ice; either stir or shake. Muddle drunken cranberries in a highball glass, then fill with ice, then pour chilled drink over. Garnish with fresh cranberries and mint.
For the Drunken Cranberry Syrup
1 cup Water
1 cup Table Sugar
1 cup Cranberries
1 cup Dark Rum
2 Cinnamon sticks
Zest of 1 Orange
1 pinch Kosher or Sea Salt
Mix all ingredients in a saucepan, simmer until cranberries begin to split. Remove cranberries with a slotted spoon, then use a cheesecloth or strainer to strain the remaining syrup.
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