In good company

When is a dinner party not a dinner party? When you’re too busy making your own mini-episode of MasterChef and apologising for your efforts.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a potluck that my friends had organised. I was quite chuffed with the results of the dessert I’d brought (bread pudding with strawberry compote), especially since it was the first time I’d both served my bread pudding to a crowd and made compote. After I’d divvied it up, I drizzled over the compote. But instead of just putting it on the plate, I caught myself doing it in a fashion I’ve seen the chefs do in the likes of Iron Chef. Perhaps it was a secret desire to impress my friends, that I too could plate like they do in the kitchen stadium.

After plating up, I was slightly crestfallen when it didn’t quite drizzle the way I had wanted, even prefacing the dessert with, “Oh, I’m not sure if it tastes good. I hope it’s okay.” I realised I was indirectly seeking a verdict for my dish.

Food is something we tend to be judged on, especially when it comes to popular mainstay dishes during the holidays: the pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, the turkey at Christmas. We all have our own recipes and cookbooks we swear by, but at what point did perfecting the plating up and the visual presentation of food become a thing we had to worry and stress about at home?

Food writer Corey Mintz recently wrote in The New York Times about how the proliferation of cooking shows has transformed the way we cook, whereby home cooking becomes more about the style rather than substance. As the camera pans in, we can see how impeccable the appetiser, main meal, and dessert looks. In a sense, a new standard has been set for the home cook. There now appears to be this unspoken (and unnecessary) pressure for our meals to look in the same manner. It has influenced the way we host dinner parties almost to the point that we’ve prioritised the cooking and appearance of the food over company. It doesn’t help that folks like Jamie Oliver, Delia Smith, and Nigella Lawson have their own kitchenware lines, further perpetuating the ideal that you too can cook like them if you have their gadgets. So, before your dinner party becomes disastrous, here are some things to keep in mind, speaking from experience as both a host, and a guest.

Make your guests feel welcome and comfortable

They didn’t come to see you only for a brief moment because you’re in the kitchen perfecting a technique you saw on some show. In one instance I kept apologising to my guests about being caught in the kitchen, encouraging them to carry on conversing while I replicated a page of a Ken Hom cookbook.

Plan and prep your food in advance whenever possible

When your friends start to trickle in, they should be the main focus, and not your meal. Take their coat and offer them a drink and an appetiser.

Know your guests’ dietary requirements

I’ve been to a dinner where despite telling the host in advance of my vegetarian diet, there was very little for me to eat. I was left to pick at the veggies that were mixed in with the meat.

The dining room is not a stage for competition

There’s nothing worse than constantly asking your guests how the dish was, or revealing in a self-deprecating manner that it didn’t look like how it did in the picture. Like Mintz mentions, it’s the equivalent of asking, “Does this make me look fat?” And as much as I love Come Dine With Me, we have to remember we’re not taking part in an episode, asking our guests to candidly rate our food. Bottom line: it’s okay if our food doesn’t look like it does on TV. It’s always nice when a dish is just plain simple.

Make the dinner participatory

I remember going to a friend’s house one weekend and their Sunday ritual was to make a roast, which can be a huge ordeal even for one person. The five of us chipped in, chopping the veggies, making the Yorkshire pudding mix, mixing the gravy, and so on. Before we knew it, everything was ready to go in the oven. Alternatively, hosting a potluck is one of my favourite things to do. There’s usually a story behind the dish people choose to bring, and it tends to be relatively stress-free.

I’d be a hypocrite if I said a bit of my cooking wasn’t influenced by what I saw on food TV, but I’ve learned to not make a habit of it. Ultimately, food brings people together, and that should be our primary concern. So here’s to the holidays! May your cockles be warmed with good food, drink, and most importantly, good company.

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