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Suggestions and Tricks to put together a polished professional meal.

I enjoy having guest for meals but I would like to develop a system where I am able to get everything done so that I am not going crazy at the last moment. I am able to do a lot of the preparation in advance but I find it difficult to get everything out of the oven and on to the table quickly. Being old school I do like to make numerous dishes so that everyone will find something they like. How do chefs do it. Also, I like to make at least three dessert choices. Problem is, at the end of the evening I am exhausted. Any suggestions would be appreciated. Also, can anyone recommend a site I could go to that could give me some good tips?

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  1. Hire help.

    Producing numerous cooked dishes, ready at the same time, plus multiple dessert choices, doing it all yourself, *is* exhausting and a lot of hard work. Hire someone to help with the work (chopping vegetables, watching pans as they cook, serving at the end).

    The other thing is to run through your planned menu exactly as you plan to serve it, several times before the run with guests. That will make you more efficient when you do it, and will allow you to iron out any wrinkles in the process.

    1. The operative word is "chefs" plural. It's unlikely that you can turn out working alone in your kitchen what the multiple pros can do. I'd say hardly anyone does more than an app, a main, a couple of sides and a dessert. And one dessert. I'd go for quality rather than quantity.

      1. Include several dishes that are completed in advance. I had a summer vegetable ceviche ready and refrigerated four hours ahead of time...couscous which takes minutes to prepare and almond cake with berries ready to assemble. Made the grilling of swordfish a non-issue as everything else was done or close to done.

        3 Replies
        1. re: Tripper

          Will you share the veg ceviche recipe?

          1. re: lexuschef

            It is the cover recipe for the August Food and Wine magazine. Visually beautiful and delicious. Served for two dinners and everyone enjoyed it. Great issue...lots of veggie recipes.

        2. You have already realized the importance of early preparations, and that's half the battle. Where you are confused is about commercial kitchen production, where they have much more staff to assist and much more equipment available to get any job done properly...also, in the best of commercial kitchens. not every item comes right out of the oven and onto the dinner table....only individual plates are rushed out, Many items for the home are served family style or in casserole form where the mass of the dish maintains heat.....Meats also need to be rested. Worrying about getting something out of the oven and on to the table is not necessary.

          If you map out each dish, you can figure out the time needed and when to get started.

          This is not to say your query cannot be solved and cannot be done in the home kitchen.. What you need is better time management and have what you need(early preparation of ingredients) to finish any sides and sauces. If you approach your cooking of the meal like you do for the holidays....you can knock out food with the best of them.e.g., if you make a roast, do it early and expect to hold if for up to two hours.....that gives you enough time to rest the meat and the oven becomes free to heat up the rest of your menu....Once your food is heated, it will stay hot long enough to get to the table and be served without any problems or complaints.

          1. I am known (by my friends and family) for my wide variety of foods served to guests. I often serve many apps and many desserts at parties. I serve a variety of vegetable dishes in the main course. The trick is to choose carefully, consider serving temperature. Not everything should be planned to be served from the oven piping hot. I plan so that I am not in the kitchen when my guests arrive.

            You need to bake in advance, choose some dishes that will be served cold, some best at room temp, and dishes that will stay fresh when sitting out (not anything with melted cheeses,cream sauces, or that will wilt once assembled, etc). I make an exception for baked Brie because when wrapped with phyllo, it stays self contained and warm until everyone cuts into it, otherwise, cheese is best at room temp anyway and can be prepped well in advance. Gougeres, crackers, pasties, can all be made in advance.

            For desserts, I usually offer a simple baked good or two ( like a brownie, lemon pound cake, etc) that can be served plain or topped, then maybe a pie or tart and/or fruit based dessert. If I make homemade ice cream, I make it in advance. Most all desserts can be made in advance. I don't choose something like a sabayon that I have to fuss with when I have guests in the next room.

            1 Reply
            1. re: sedimental

              this is great advice.

              a friend yesterday was complimenting me (blush) that whenever i had parties, she swore i must have 6 clones helping me. :) but the real trick is planning your dishes so that not everything has to come off the stove or out of the oven at one time.

              recently i made braised pork for friends. i had cooked it a couple days before, so that while we were enjoying apps, it was on low-heat, being simply rewarmed in the oven. the sides were a carrot salad and a pea/basil flan, both of which were cold, and thin sliced potatoes, layered and roasted with butter that i had cooked in the morning and were reheating with the pork. i make stuff like this a lot so i'm not a slave to last-minute cooking.

              as for desserts, people are stuffed from the meal, so unless it's more than 15 people, 3 is usually too many unless 1 is just a fruit plate. i never serve dessert that requires any kind of last minute attention other than being removed from the fridge and plated.

              realize when you dine out there is more than one person in the kitchen cooking and plating the food for a party of four. different components come from different stations and they are not making stuff like risotto or short ribs to order.

            2. a. Getting everything out and hot quickly.
              b. Multiple dishes and at least 3 choices of desserts.
              c. Eat with your guests.

              Pick two of the above.

              I think the others have already gone over the "simplify your life" options. My chef friends do it by having a kitchen brigade to help them and of course adhering to the menu.

              I personally like doing the fiddly menus and still do when I do my pop-up, but it's really feasible only if you don't give options and have everyone eat the same thing for each course. And you don't get to eat with your guests unless it's really a starter, main and dessert.

              3 Replies
              1. re: wattacetti

                i disagree. Of course you want to eat with your guests - they should be able to see you as host, not as purveyor. You just need to make it look like the food is taking care of itself.

                The only stumbling block here to eating with your guests is desserts that require too much at the last minute. Pick desserts that can come striaght from the frig or freezer, or room-temp when you're done with your main course. Or if there's a little pause before dessert, some people will welcome it. We also serve desserts that can go striaght from the oven to table if they're not too much work going in (e.g. cobbler).

                Do everything you can before guests arrive. My vegetable dishes are usually chosen to be forgiving enough to cook a day ahead and microwave at dinner time.

                Also, a detailed schedule is a must. If you (or someone) have the computer skills, make a list of every dish and every step required to get it done. Put a day and detailed time (I get it down to 5 minute increments) on every task. Re-sort a copy of it by time and you've got your detailed schedule.

                1. re: WNYamateur

                  I don't carry it as far as you do but I do make a menu and from the menu my shopping list. Just had family of seven adults and two small toddlers and everyone was well fed on a timely basis :)

                  1. re: WNYamateur

                    I'm not the one with the timing issues.

                    If the OP wants to do all of what was originally outlined, it's still pick two of the above.

                    And my guests don't mind if I don't eat with them when I do the fiddly stuff because that's when they get the show. It's a very different dynamic.

                2. "but I find it difficult to get _everything_ out of the oven and on to the table quickly."

                  Why do you think you should - or could?

                  Maybe some observations from the french people who give dinner parties at home.

                  David Leibowitz in Paris has some excellent advice. As does
                  Michael Roberts (google him for his credentials): their advice is simple and very french

                  Stop trying to do everything by yourself.
                  Stop trying to do too much.
                  The purpose of a superb dinner with friends is everyone's enjoyment, including yours. A tense, exhausted cook defeats the purpose, yes?

                  Sounds harsh and I apologize for that but it is the BEST advice (also comes from an elegant and amused American friend who lived there, in Paris and on the Med. for four years).

                  Roberts did a terrific cooking/ food book: "Parisian Home
                  Cooking". It contains recipes, wonderful ones, but more significant is learning what Parisians have to say about their own approach to food and family/friends.

                  "How do chefs do it?" That question seems odd - did you notice that they have lots of people working in the kitchen? do you notice the Other people who do prep, lots of steps for each item and course? Maybe an entire staff doing nothing but clean-up? arranging and clearing and cleaning the front-of-the house? So they always have extra hands (and experienced people) to turn out every item needed. Do you?

                  French home cooks take full advantage of sourcing wonderful things: a superb lemon tart for dessert, the best bakery for puff pastry, a talented small shop for cheese and fruit arranged with care at home, a wonderful asparagus tart to serve as a first course. And of course, good bread and butter. 3 dessert choices?

                  French home cooks concentrate on enjoyment and focus on preparing several courses themselves, very well. If they do the appetizers and dessert and vegetables, they may purchase an excellent roast chicken or other entree. If they do the entree and vegetable, they may serve a wonderful first course and dessert from the best shop they know. We can find those sources too, in our towns or simplify the menu.

                  I've learned from them - I'm grateful to my non-american friends and family who taught me that great food and your own enjoyment are 2 sides of the same coin. best of luck.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: kariin

                    What a fabulous essay! As I've aged I've gotten over the notion that I have to make everything from "soup to nuts" from scratch. My meals have improved and I'm more relaxed. Thanks for taking the time and sharing your expertise.

                    1. re: c oliver

                      I've liked Ina Garten's approach: make 1-2 things really special and buy the rest. Works well for me, too.

                      1. re: pine time

                        i'm too much of a control freak for that. :)

                        also, when the only supermarket around is wal-mart, plenty of americans don't have access to items like excellent cheeses or lovely pastries.

                        1. re: hotoynoodle

                          If there's a Walmart, there are probably grocery stores like Safeway (west coast), etc. Really good ice cream, berries, decent cheeses, etc. I'm 66 now and it took me a LONG time to realize that it really wasn't about turning out dish after dish after dish. It was friends and family coming together. The rest is gravy - or icing :) But that's for a different thread.

                  2. The two PBS "Fast Food My Way" series that Jacques Pepin did feature the use of semi-prepared ingredients and short-cuts like using the salad bar as your vegetable prep cook. He has great time-saving, prep-simplifying ideas, but they do come with an inevitable increase in the cost of the ingredients. Whether or not the trade-off makes sense for your circumstances is up to you.

                    1. I'm a caterer & planning and early prep - including finding frig space- are the key. Some easy ideas: antipasto, salade Nicoise with Old Bay steamed shrimp. Spiral ham (buy from good grocery store) & biscuits you just warm/ finish slicing the ham. Warm Brie or Sharp Provolone with baguette slices, Make ahead Sugar Spiced Pecans. Pork Tenderloin with Sauce (see Food Network) are quick. Mixed fresh berries with a little brown sugar, lemon, & grated fresh ginger. have fun!