Making pizza in a Trulli in Alberobello, Puglia, Italy.

Tips for a Successful Dinner Party Away

We’ve been doing a bit of entertaining the last few days at Lara’s uncle’s house in Bendigo culminating me cooking a five-course meal yesterday for some of our old friends. It got me thinking about entertaining when you’re on holidays, particularly if you’re staying in a home that’s not yours or a holiday rental

Some of the people who attended our Dubai Grantourismo soiree last year asked whether we had used caterers. They were obviously the ones who didn’t see the mess in kitchen! We didn’t, but we appreciated the compliment. At the London launch party, people asked whether we’d be hosting parties at each place we stayed on our travels. We were seriously thinking about it, and we did have a few dinner parties on the trip — in Ceret, Puglia, Sardinia, and Austin.

Many people who rent holiday homes do so with their family or a group of friends. While it’s fine to do pasta every day, it’s also great to make use of a good kitchen if the place has one and to have at least one serious meal during your stay. And it’s doesn’t have to be hard. We’ve always entertained and while I used to be really bad at balancing time spent in the kitchen and time with guests, I’m much better these days. It’s all about planning and selecting your dishes carefully.

One handy tool that will help you is an application I use called MacGourmet, which I use on both my MacBook Pro and my iPhone. I’ve been transferring recipes to it so I have all my favourites on my iPhone4 so that if I see some lovely fresh produce in a market on our travels, I can find a recipe and buy all the ingredients I need to make a dish. While it’s a slightly laborious process — I have recipes in Word files, Excel files, PDFs and web clippings! — it’s great to see some of the dishes I’ve been cooking over the past few years.

I thought I’d share one menu I came across in my recipe folder. It’s a slightly tongue-in-cheek degustation menu, playing up some Dubai chatter about me being a ‘chef’ while providing our guests with a New Year’s Eve souvenir. New Year’s Eve was always problematic in Dubai, as it is anywhere I guess, with different people going off to do different things (and spending far more than this dinner cost!), so that particular year we decided to host a dinner party.

I love having dinner parties because I never play it safe and always push my cooking. Of course we’re always aware that you can spend too much time in the kitchen, so I used to plan and prep it like it a military operation. Here’s my New Year’s Eve menu from 2004:

Menu NYE 31.12.2004

‘Potato Chips’ with Truffle Dip

Parmigiano Reggiano Crisps with Goats Cheese Mousse

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Cold Soup of Cauliflower with French Crème and Sevruga Caviar

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Sea Scallops with Gnocchi, Burnt Butter and Pine Nuts

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Crisp Duck Confit with Warm Potato & Shallot Salad and Red Wine and Truffle Reduction

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Duo of Sorbets: Honey and Grapefruit, Lychee

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Selection of Cheeses

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Chefs and foodies know what’s going on here, but to others it might appear to be a daunting menu to attempt. But it’s not, so let’s break it down…

The first two ‘snacks’ can be a little tricky and require exacting prep — but they are from the French Laundry cookbook so you’d expect them to be a little complex. They went wonderfully with cocktails as they’re basically fancy chips with individual dips.

The soup is a dish from the brilliant Japanese-Australian chef Tetsuya Wakuda in Sydney, and can easily be made in advance — I like to make soups the day before the party. We could get great Sevruga caviar for a fantastic price in Dubai back then. It was served in shot glasses — it’s a rich, decadent dish so you don’t want too much.

The sea scallops with gnocchi, burnt butter and pine nuts is from another Sydney chef, Stefano Manfredi, who used to own the fine Bel Mondo Italian restaurant and now the new Balla. It’s quite a fast dish to put together at the last minute — apart from actually making the gnocchi, of course! If you’re prepped, it’s around five minutes to the table once the scallops start sizzling in the pan. By this time the guests want something a little more filling, but I just use three scallops and several pieces of gnocchi per person for this. It’s also rich, but hey, it was New Year’s Eve.

The main course, crisp duck confit with warm potato and shallot salad and red wine and truffle reduction, is also an easy dish when prepped. The confit just requires reheating (pan and then to oven), the potatoes can be finished in the oven with the duck, and the red wine and truffle reduction can be made in advance. It also doesn’t require much assembly as it’s not a fussy-looking dish.

The duo of sorbets is easy to make with an ice-cream maker and only requires scooping out, and the cheese plate is easy, and is just a matter of remembering to get the cheese to room temperature.

I also figured that we’d be getting close to midnight by this stage, so a more formal dessert course was not going to be a good idea. Besides, doing something like soufflé after a few drinks will end in tears — either from the recalcitrant soufflé that won’t rise, or from burning yourself due to being a little lubricated. Not that this has ever personally happened to me…

One reason I’m excited about having all these recipes on my iPhone4 is that cooking shouldn’t be about going to the market with a pre-conceived notion of what you will cook. It should be about seeing what’s fresh and what’s local (hopefully coinciding) and then deciding on a menu.

For instance, Chef Didier Garnich from Gin Fish, a seafood restaurant in Antwerp, gets phone calls from his suppliers every evening giving him a hint of what’s coming in the next day. He then decides on dishes based on what’s available. He doesn’t have a menu, but what he does have is a Michelin Star. I love the way that guy cooks.

So here are my Tips for a Successful Dinner Party Away

  1. Assess the cooking gear and utensils available in your holiday rental so you know your kitchen’s limitations — make sure the stove works and you’re going to have enough pots and pans.
  2. Only create your menu after visiting the local market and assessing what’s fresh, local, in season, and readily available.
  3. Never attempt a dish you’ve never successfully made before.
  4. Do a mix of dishes that you can pre-prepare and ones that need to be cooked à la minute.
  5. Once you have settled on a menu, write a prep schedule, starting from items that might need marinating (meats, fish, etc) for 24hrs, to items that are cooked à la minute. Stick to the schedule.
  6. Always write your final menu down — you’d be surprised at how many times you might change the menu over a few days before a dinner party.
  7. Time the meal, eg, cocktails and canapés at 8pm, amuse-bouche at 8.30pm, starter at 8.50pm, etc. Write these timings next to the menu, even if it’s just a rough guide.
  8. Keep it (relatively) simple. Unless you’re travelling with ‘foodie’ friends, people are on holidays with you because they want to spend time with you, not see your butt wiggling in the kitchen and your sweaty self with a hand in a bandage or an ice bucket while you eat. Unless your guests are expecting culinary fireworks, keep it simple and enjoy the conversation and your time away.


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