The best parties are a celebration of friendship—just getting people together to enjoy each other's company.— Jessica Goin, catering director at Lucques in Los Angeles
Throwing a party at home can seem like a daunting task, especially if you’re planning a party for the first time or organizing something bigger than you’ve attempted before. But with a few tips from people who make their living planning and catering grand events, such as Reese Witherspoon’s wedding or the Oscars Governor’s Ball, your own house party will dazzle your guests and go off without a hitch.
A relaxed attitude is the most important thing a home party planner should have on hand, says Jessica Goin, director of catering for Lucques restaurant in Los Angeles. In March 2011, Goin fed the guests at Reese Witherspoon’s wedding, and Lucques also hosted first lady Michelle Obama and her daughters for dinner.
“People can get so caught up in what they could have done better in planning their party that they forget to relax and enjoy themselves," Goin says." And a stressed-out host doesn't lead to a fun party.”
Being relaxed is easy if you’ve allowed yourself enough time to plan. Barbara Brass, vice president of catering sales for Los Angeles-based Wolfgang Puck Catering, has been organizing the Academy Awards’ official after-party, the Governor’s Ball, for 16 years. Even with all that experience, she gives herself a few hours to clear her head before guests arrive. She can take care of last-minute details then, but most of her prep work is finished at that point, so she can concentrate on things like what to wear.
"Spend a lot of time pre-planning the menu, including things like what platter to use, and what items you’ll use to cook," Brass recommends. "Make sure there’s enough room in the oven, and on the stove.” She’s always careful to read and understand a recipe before she tries it out on guests to avoid last-minute kitchen disasters.
“Mise en place, which is having all the prepared ingredients out and ready to cook, is very important,” she says.
Don’t worry if your kitchen isn’t full of perfectly sized dishes for chopped onions and spices. Brass places her ingredients in plastic cups that she buys at a grocery store. She also buys hors d’oeuvres and finger foods at the markets.
“Antipasti bars are great for items like olives, marinated garlic and mozzarella. You can prepare that at home, but why bother?”
The old party-throwing adage about having fewer chairs than guests doesn’t apply to contemporary parties, according to both Goin and Brass. Think more about “what gets your group moving around talking to each other,” advises Goin. “But an older crowd especially can feel uncomfortable taking up seating if there's not enough for everyone.”
For her parties, Brass invites as many people as can sit in her dining room, living room and deck. Unless it’s an all-day open house, “I want no more than four or six standing at one time,” she says. (Of course, it’s difficult for a host to get a headcount. Goin has received an RSVP only two hours before a party, and she believes it’s part of an increasingly informal culture.)
For drinks, Goin and Brass both say it’s all about knowing your guests and their preferences. Goin is a fan of specialty cocktails that go with the theme of the evening.
“Make both with vodka, so you don't end up with a lot of leftover bottles of gin or rum," she says. "Make the drinks light on the booze, so guests can try both. Make the mixes ahead of time in pitchers and you can add sparkling water instead of vodka for festive non-alcoholic beverages.”
Brass, who generally sticks to wine and beer, puts bottles of both in galvanized tubs, allowing guests to pick and pour for themselves during the party.
Allowing guests to pour their own drinks can encourage them to mingle with others. Parties with themes are great conversation-starters and can be done elegantly—even something like a Cinco de Mayo or St. Patrick’s Day party.
“The Internet’s an amazing thing," says Brass. "I can research, say, indigenous foods to Ireland. And then instead of green beer, I can serve real Irish beer. I can put together a real menu of Irish food. But, I’d still use green napkins. For Cinco de Mayo, a salsa bar is fun.”
Of course, if you’re feeling like “elegance” isn’t the direction you want to take, Goin encourages parties with off-the-wall themes.
“As long as you don't take yourself or your party too seriously, a cheesy theme is great. Just remember that a party is about community and fun—not about showing off your skills as the next Martha Stewart. If the host is having fun, chances are the guests will too!”
- Photo Credit Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images