Screw the White Gloves
by Ashley Ball
Heard the one about the veteran host who hired an actor and actress to argue and storm out at the beginning of the party? It was the perfect icebreaker; the guests couldn't stop talking about it.
Suburban legends like this one support the outdated theory that good hosting requires cunning, subterfuge and sangfroid. Washington hostess Sally Quinn (that's Mrs. Ben Bradlee to you) echoes the manipulative sentiment in her book The Party : A Guide to Adventurous Entertaining, writing that the ideal situation involves the President and the First Lady arriving before dinner, staying for cocktails, and then leaving the rest of the party to gossip about them for the night.
Oh, is that when the President and First Lady should come? Make a note.
Most of us know that real hosting, whether the occasion is drinks for "important" strangers or a barbecue with seen-you-naked, don't-care friends, is less about dinner as theatre than about making people feel comfortable.
Ris Lacoste, executive chef at the 1789 House in Washington D.C., is a stone's throw from the Beltway herself. Her idea of hospitality, though, is worlds away from the one-upmanship of Quinn's semipro hostessing. Lacoste's down to earth recommendations for creating an intimate feeling at your party won't leave you floating rumors that the Queen of Denmark just walked in.
1. Be comfortable. A great party is had when the hostess herself is having a great time.
2. Be ready. And if you're not, chances are you won't be comfortable. "As we say in the kitchen, mis en place — having everything set up and ready to go — is everything. [It helps us feel that] once the curtain goes up and we're ready, we can conquer all." Anything that can be prepared ahead of time, should be.
3. Make your guests feel special. "Once they set foot in your home, they are kings and queens," opines Lacoste. "In my day we smoked a lot, so I had a pack of everyone's favorite cigarettes. Know their music likes. Know that they drink Tanqueray gin. Surround them with their favorite things to put them immediately at ease." If your guests are strangers, call them and ask. The extra effort puts your party into another class entirely.
4. Never leave your guests alone. Entrust them to a partner or a good friend, or let them join you in the kitchen or wherever it is you need to go.
5. Always be ready to step in and change the course of the party — it can be done. Lacoste admits to two parties that didn't start well at all. "Both times I overdid it on the menu," she recounts. The first was when she was "very young, just back from Paris. I cooked for my uncles and aunts, and I was in the kitchen all night, an absolute wreck." There was too much to do; it was doomed to fail. Ah well, she was young.
The second instance was a housewarming party where there wasn't enough help — too few friends helping with the outdoor grill, too many items on the menu. "I was frantic," remembers Lacoste. Until she did what any seasoned hostess would do: "I gave up the cooking position. I grabbed someone and said, 'Great. You. Go grill.' And began to mingle and have a good time."
Because after all, it's your party, and you'll fry — or not — if you want to.