Gail Simmons wears a lot of hats: She's a culinary expert, food writer and editor, television personality (she's a regular judge on Top Chef and hosts its spin-off Top Chef: Just Desserts ), and, most recently, she's the latest Estancia Wine ambassador. So to say this busy lady knows a thing or two about food and entertaining may just be the understatement. Despite her packed schedule, we caught up with the culinary genius about newlywed entertaining. From what to serve, how to decorate, and ways to navigate the tricky etiquette of being a host, Simmons offers 10 smart tips for throwing your first dinner party as husband and wife.
Top 5 Dos
Be a Thoughtful Host
These days so many people have food allergies and sensitivities. As host, be mindful of your guests' needs by taking the time to ask them at least a day in advance if they have any eating requirements (nut or seafood allergy, gluten or lactose intolerance, vegetarian, etc). Don't feel obligated to cook separate meals for everyone, but knowing if there are any significant special needs allows you to tweak your menu enough to make them feel welcome and comfortable.
Strive for One Seriously Amazing Dish
When first starting to entertain at home, focus on making one spectacular main course and serving it alongside easy appetizer staples, like olives, nuts, salumi and cheese, warm bread and dips, and a bottle of great wine. Also, make a delicious, decadent dessert a day in advance so you don't have to worry about timing. Just reheat it slowly in the oven while you are enjoying the meal. A seasonal, fresh fruit cobbler or bread pudding are perfect make-ahead crowd pleasers.
Set the Mood
Decorating does not just refer to elaborate tabletop and flower arrangements. Setting the right mood can be done in so many creative ways, and easily on a budget. Take the time to make the perfect playlist, pay attention to lighting and make sure there's plenty of comfortable seating for all.
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Remember the Details
Keep a simple colored or white wax pencil in the kitchen, which you can buy at any art or office supply store. Use it to write each guest's name on their wine glasses as they arrive. This way everyone can easily keep track of which glass is theirs, even if moving from room to room or switching chairs through the evening.
Prep Your Party in Advance
When entertaining for a large group, set the table and pick out all your platters, dishware, glassware and serving bowls the day before the party. Place sticky notes on each, designating its purpose and required serving piece. This creates a mental checklist of every course and will enable you to anticipate issues with ample time to problem solve.
Top 5 Don'ts
Don't Underestimate How Much People Will Eat and Drink
It's always better to have slightly more than needed and sending people home with leftovers is appreciated. If hosting a party for more than four guests, it's helpful to buy several bottles of the same red and white wine so they don't have to worry about mixing when they want a refill. Try Estancia Monterey County Chardonnay or Estancia Monterey County Pinot Noir, which pair well with food and can be found easily at most local retailers.
Don't Over Reach with a Complicated Menu
Skip too many fussy courses and details! Of course you want to impress your guests, but you also want to enjoy their company and not spend the whole night in the kitchen.
Don't Over Decorate
Don't clutter your dining table with overbearing centerpieces, huge bouquets or too many candles (and make sure any candles you do light are unscented so as to not interfere with the smells and flavors of the food!). Having too much on the table makes conversation difficult, passing food arduous, and accidents more likely.
Don't Turn Down Help
If your spouse or guests offer an extra hand or to bring part of the meal there is no need to be a martyr and deny them. Even allowing them to bring the wine, set the table or load the dishwasher gives you time to focus on everything else.
Don't Save Your Fancy China and Silverware
If you don't use it when entertaining now you probably never will. Be careful with family heirlooms but, if you received beautiful platters, serving pieces, tableware and glasses for your wedding there's no reason to let them gather dust. Break out the good stuff early and often.