Eating together is a primal pleasure but the dinner party has never been as loosely defined as it is today. We took a wholly unscientific sample from among our favourite culinary contacts to hear what’s changed and how to get the chemistry just right.
Organisation and preparation are essential. I remember in 2004, when my business partner David and I were flatmates, and we made an over-ambitious Canadian Thanksgiving feast for 12 people. When we were ready to sit we realised that the turkey, which was too big for the oven, wasn’t remotely cooked. I called my mom, who said, “First, turn the heat up in the oven; second, go around and pour more wine.” The turkey eventually cooked – albeit a bit dry – and we served dinner. In the end it was a really fun afternoon that turned into evening.
There is a lot less formality in what people serve today; it’s all about sharing food. However, while the food is less formal, it must all be served with proper and creative tableware. It’s all about the ambience – for me it’s champagne and candelabras. A bad dinner has too many courses, or foam – or a buffet. I always arrive 15 minutes late to give the host some more time and I always bring a gift (definitely not a scented candle). I particularly like to send and receive handwritten thank‑you notes.
Dinner parties hosted by me and my wife are all about experiences. It doesn’t matter if it took you 10 minutes or 10 hours to cook, or if you serve cheese before or after the main course. What matters is that you offer your friends something memorable: a 5kg fish, a jeroboam of Grüner Veltliner, a diy truffle sandwich. Everyone should have a pisco sour (or other drink) within 10 minutes of arriving. We eat in the kitchen – it’s more informal and it includes the person cooking. Plus we use magnums, no bottles. The way to ruin it? Saying, “I trust the meal is to your liking” in a pretentious way seven times during the evening.
Show people something they haven’t seen before. I like to make vegetarian food for meat-eaters to show how good it can be. I do a light, refreshing aperitif rather than champagne or wine to start, often one that uses local flavours to surprise people. In the Caribbean [where Schelling worked], for instance, we make one that you drink from a coconut; in Mexico we use cactus as flavouring. Being a chef, I’m not usually invited – people think I’ll be critical – but I really enjoy it when I am and I never criticise. I tend to focus more on the people.
I love good food and good wine and getting to know new people. I try to interact with all the guests and pay attention to anyone who might be shy. Two key aspects that make a dinner party sparkle: the right people and the right wine. If I’m hosting I make sure that the guests fit with each other and create a positive dynamic. I can guarantee (after raising a glass thousands of times in my life) that toasting is a great way to help people get closer and have a good time. So sparkling wine (guess which one?) is definitely my choice throughout dinner.
With the boom in food media and cooking shows, guests are more discerning – but I don’t hold dinner parties too dissimilar to how my parents entertained. The worst thing is a half-hearted host; it’s best to be committed to the evening. As for guests? Those with too many inhibitions and the ones who may not have left their working week behind them, or who need to leave early for morning commitments, are the worst. I feel that its important not to play too safe with the food you’re serving. Trust your instincts and be creative with what you offer.
Dinner at home remains one of the most pleasurable activities that a human being can engage in. As ancient Greek essayist Plutarch once put it: “We do not meet to eat and drink but to eat and drink together.” Unfortunately food today has also become an unmissable opportunity for people to engage in snobbery (“My vegetable supplier is better than yours”). Where it was once thought important to be familiar with the works of authors and artists such as Franz Kafka or Leonardo Da Vinci, now it’s considered better if you are able to hold a conversation about kombucha or mixology and, above all, that you bake your own bread. It can be unbearably exasperating. We must remember never to take ourselves too seriously.
I am not nearly as gregarious as my father was but I have nevertheless retained a fondness for dinner parties. When it comes to hosting them, I also have a few golden rules. One is that you should always feed your guests as though they were starving. Another is that you should never leave any of the people at your table with an empty glass. A third rule is that you should make the effort to go beyond your comfort zone as a host. That often means bringing new faces into the fold, while making them feel that they are part of the gang. Finally, this brings me to the particular self-sacrificing vision that I have of the dinner host, who should be available for all of the guests. If you want to have a serious one-on-one discussion with me that’s great, but let’s have lunch at a restaurant – or book a meeting room during office hours.
People’s expectations have changed and dinner parties are much more low key today. The kitchen supper has taken over – it’s more casual and easy to deliver – serving something like a nice pasta. Try not to have too many guests; six to eight is perfect but 10 is pushing it into more formal territory. Have as much as possible ready before your guests arrive – make sure there’s fruit in the bowl for later and fresh mint tea ready for after dinner. Have someone on drinks duty if you can, otherwise open the bottles beforehand.
What used to be a sit-down affair can be a combination of sitting and standing, multi-course meals, platters, buffets and pot luck. A good dinner has a variety of food that includes a balance of protein, vegetables and starch. A better one should include pudding and plenty of booze. A bad one? When guests don’t get along due to personality and/or political clashes; it’s advisable to keep religious or political debates to a minimum.
The devil is in the detail. Strong light, inappropriate music and a room that’s too hot or too cold can make all the difference. I like meals to greet my guests with something special – an unexpected decoration or a self-made cocktail. Wine at the correct temperature, the right crowd plus a stress-free atmosphere make a party a success.
In Sydney we try to entertain at lunch time because we can then sit on our deck overlooking Pittwater. More often than not, lunch rolls into dinner; it’s not unusual to have an eight-hour lunch. But I do try to steer my guests away from politics and climate change. It’s an art to invite people who you feel will have some common ground and to ensure that the introductions you make lead to great conversations. It’s vitally important to stay alert to the needs of guests – make sure the glasses don’t stay empty, whether it’s wine or water.
Today a good dinner party is much more about the quality of food and wine. Personally I like to surprise my guests and spice it up with either a theme or a game. The last dinner I held was in Berlin: I invited some friends over for a murder-mystery dinner game. Make sure your neighbours are OK with loud discussions; the worst thing is a stiff dinner in the wrong company.
Food can’t ruin a party. As long as you have the right people and a comfortable atmosphere, the evening will be great. At mine it is all about being together: everyone is in the kitchen, cooking and chatting over glasses of wine. The foremost rule for attending? Good manners. It may sound simple but mere good manners can go a long way at a dinner party.